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Parents Give Credit Card Barbie a Low Rating

Retail: Mattel toy was a popular holiday seller, but critics are concerned about the MasterCard tie-in and what it's teaching kids.

April 02, 1998|VANESSA HUA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Buying on credit is child's play with Cool Shoppin' Barbie, the first doll with a toy credit card. And some parents aren't happy.

Mattel Inc. and MasterCard joined forces last fall to launch the doll, one of the latest in co-branded products that include Harley-Davidson Barbie, Bloomingdale's Barbie and Got Milk? Barbie. MasterCard is counting on Barbie to help gain loyal customers--even if children won't be packing plastic for at least 10 years.

The doll raised the ire of some parents and consumer counseling groups who say the toy encourages irresponsible spending. A top seller in the 1997 holiday season, Cool Shoppin' Barbie chirps "credit approved" after the card runs through the scanner. There's no credit limit, and the package comes with two MasterCards--a tiny plastic one for Barbie and a cardboard one for the child.

"The reality is that credit cards and their misuse can get you in a whole lot of trouble," said Pat Hunter, executive director of Consumer Credit Counseling Services of Metropolitan Chicago, an organization that offers financial advice and has branches throughout the U.S.

Officials at El Segundo-based Mattel said the firm uses brand names to add realism.

"It's so a child can really pretend. We thought it would be fun for her to run the card through the scanner," said Mattel spokeswoman Lisa McKendall.

MasterCard has available a free personal finance booklet titled "Kids, Cash, Plastic and You." But some parents say that's not enough--they want the product pulled from the market or the pamphlet included with the Barbie.

"It's inexcusable for MasterCard to use this format," said Susan Price of Boscobel, Wis. "They're messing with our children. Their goal is to grow [children] up with a MasterCard in their purse." Price has fired off letters to Mattel, more than 100 newspapers and an Internet bulletin board.

A record 1.35 million people filed for bankruptcy last year, according to the American Bankruptcy Institute, an educational group that tracks information from federal records. Officials say the surge is partly because of the easy availability of personal credit.

Both Mattel and MasterCard officials insisted that Cool Shoppin' Barbie is an "entrepreneur" running her own boutique. As packaged, Barbie clutches a boutique tote and credit card and stands next to a register with a $96 sale displayed. The message emblazoned on the front of the box: "Shopping fun for Barbie and you . . . and a working cash register too!"

Marketing experts say MasterCard is deploying a long-term strategy, comparable to cigarette mascots with kid appeal, such as cartoon character Joe Camel.

"What they're getting is awareness," said David Bell, a professor at the Anderson School at UCLA. "There's a payback for them. It's not purely altruistic."

The tie-in is a preemptive strike for the Purchase, N.Y.-based credit card company. Name brands--as have been shown in the cereal and candy markets--are set early on in children's minds, said William Keenan, president of Creative Solution, a Hockessin, Del.-based advertising agency. "The brand impression will register. It's a whole lifetime value."

Besides cultivating future consumers, a MasterCard spokesman said, the firm wanted to cash in on toy-buying parents and the expanding adult collector market.

Collectors may soon be the only ones able to get their hands on Cool Shoppin' Barbie. Mattel said it has no plans to make more or to renew its deal with the credit card company. About 95% of Barbie products change each year. However, MasterCard said it is exploring partnerships with other toy companies because of the success of the Barbie project.

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