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Mattel putting girls in driver's seat

In a gender-bending move, the company's new Polly Wheels line features die-cast racers.

February 26, 2007|Abigail Goldman | Times Staff Writer

They're small, fast and made for racing. But they are also pink or purple and sparkly, and come with a tiny doll.

Girls are getting their own line of $3 toy race cars this year from the maker of Matchbox -- half a century after that brand, now owned by Mattel Inc., introduced its classic die-cast toy for boys.

Long after the women's movement prompted equality in playthings, with sewing sets for boys and tool kits for girls, no major toy company had endeavored to create an entire line of miniature die-cast racers just for girls.

"Sometimes you just see things that you look at, scratch your head and say, 'Why didn't anybody think of this before?' " said Jim Silver, editor and co-publisher of Toy Wishes magazine. "It's so obvious, but nobody has really done it."

As its new line hits store shelves, El Segundo-based Mattel is trying to combine two of its bestsellers -- dolls and cars.

The company recently introduced its initial collection of 25 Polly Wheels -- cars driven by its Polly Pocket dolls -- at the American International Toy Fair in New York.

The question is whether today's doll-playing set -- and the parents who shop for them -- will want them.

One expert in gender and development, who has studied how boys and girls choose toys, sees promise in the idea.

By adding the doll and using themes such as taking a trip to the mall, Mattel introduces a social dimension to the Polly Wheels race cars that is more likely to appeal to girls, said psychologist Gerianne M. Alexander, an associate professor at Texas A&M University.

Studies have shown that as many as 40% of women recall playing with toy cars and trucks, she said.

"They would have a harder time selling baby dolls to boys," Alexander said of Mattel's marketers. "Girls are more receptive and more interested in these non-gender-typical things."

Elissa Barnes of Hancock Park said her two daughters -- particularly her 5 1/2 -year-old Polly fan -- might be interested in the cars as accessories for their dolls.

Still, she said she didn't think Polly Wheels would have the same staying power as a collectible that Matchbox has had with her son.

"They'll play with it as long as they're into Polly Pocket, but I don't think it will go on longer than that," said Barnes, 37. "You always feel bad making the stereotypes, but boys and girls play differently."

The idea wasn't appealing to Westwood resident Carolyn Mahboubi, 39, who works in the luxury goods industry and has a 7-year-old daughter and a 5-year-old son.

"It's almost a cliched femininity, sparkling and smelling and pink and going to the mall," Mahboubi said. "That's not part of our lifestyle."

Despite such skeptics, Mattel seems to have history on its side.

Girls for decades have played with bigger cars that could accommodate Mattel's iconic Barbie and other dolls, snapping up pink convertibles, music-blaring limos and flower-adorned recreational vehicles. And every year, $200-plus Barbie-themed ride-on cars are among that category's bestsellers.

Although many women recall playing with Matchbox cars, mostly borrowed from their brothers and friends, the small metal racers modeled on real cars weren't made with a girl buyer in mind.

That all changes with the new Polly cars, which are not your brother's Matchboxes: In addition to their candy colors, they come with tiny removable Polly Pocket dolls and frosted plastic covering the metal chassis.

In the fall, Mattel will follow up with 25 more Polly cars, each with a color-coordinated scent: blueberry for blue, grape for purple and so on.

Then, in time for the holidays, Mattel, which also makes Hot Wheels, plans the ultimate melding of traditional boys' and girls' play with a track set for the Polly cars called Race to the Mall.

The winner of the game, the first car to make it up the shopping center's elevator to a boutique, is rewarded with a magnetic shopping bag that "jumps" into the car.

Mattel said the track-set theme, as well as the cars themselves, were ideas that came from girls.

"Girls were the ones who gravitated to this," said Chuck Scothon, general manager of Mattel's girls division. "Sometimes the best ideas are the simplest ideas."

abigail.goldman@latimes.com

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