NEW YORK - America's top doll, Barbie, finds herself in controversy once again, this time over a business partnership between her manufacturer, Mattel, and the Girl Scouts.
On Thursday, two consumer advocacy groups often critical of corporate advertising tactics - the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and the Center for a New American Dream - criticized Barbie as a flawed role model for little girls and launched a petition drive urging the Girl Scouts of the USA to end the partnership. The Girls Scouts said they would not do so.
Just a few weeks ago, Mattel incurred widespread criticism - as well as some accolades - for letting Barbie be featured in Sports Illustrated's annual swimsuit edition.
The Girl Scouts' partnership with Mattel, announced last August, includes a Barbie-themed activity book, a website, and a Barbie participation patch - the first Girl Scout uniform patch with corporate sponsorship.
"Holding Barbie, the quintessential fashion doll, up as a role model for Girl Scouts simultaneously sexualizes young girls, idealizes an impossible body type, and undermines the Girl Scouts' vital mission to build 'girls of courage, confidence and character,'" said Susan Linn, director of the Boston-based commercial-free childhood organization.
She said the Barbie patch - targeted at 5-to-8-year-old Daisies and Brownies - would transform these girls into "walking advertisements."
"This is product placement at its worst," said New American Dream's executive director, Wendy Philleo, who described herself as a longtime admirer of the Girl Scouts.
"Our children are already being bombarded by marketers' pitches at stores, at home, online, on TV, and in school," said Philleo, whose Charlottesville, Va.-based group tries to counter the commercialization of American culture.
The Girl Scouts' national headquarters in New York rejected the groups' appeal.
"Our partnership with Mattel focuses on career exploration and teaches girls about inspiring women in a fun way," said spokeswoman Kelly Parisi. "We stand behind this partnership, as it helps us bring to over 2 million Girl Scouts the message that they can do anything."
That's the essence of the Barbie uniform patch - a bright pink oval with a gold-letter slogan stitched on it: "Be anything. Do everything."
Barbie - still slim-waisted and long-legged after 55 years - had pursued roughly 150 different careers, and she stretched her boundaries again in February by posing along with real-life supermodels in Sports Illustrated's 50th anniversary swimsuit issue. Anticipating the criticism that ensued, Mattel promoted the campaign with the catchword "unapologetic."
In announcing the partnership with Mattel last year, Girl Scouts CEO Anna Maria Chavez depicted both her own organization and Barbie as "American icons."
"Together, we are teaching girls that their futures are wide open with possibilities," Chavez said at the time.
Parisi, in an e-mail Thursday, said Mattel gave the Girl Scouts $2 million to implement the Barbie-themed initiatives. At the time the partnership was announced, the Girl Scouts were struggling financially, with revenue shortfalls prompting the national headquarters to trim about one-fourth of its staff through buyouts and layoffs.
The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood said the Girl Scouts' Barbie-themed website included a game that would encourage girls to identify careers based on attire - "from a veterinarian in a frilly miniskirt, to a pink-suited U.S. president, to a race car driver in stilettos."
Said Susan Linn, the campaign director: "The website is little more than an interactive ad for Barbie promoting the brand's insidious message that women really are what they wear."
Linn said she communicated privately with the Girl Scouts last year, hoping they would end the Mattel partnership without the need for a public advocacy campaign, but those efforts failed.
A psychologist who teaches at Harvard Medical School, Linn founded the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood in 2000. It now reports a membership of 54,000, many of them parents.
The group's advocacy campaigns have achieved numerous victories, notably in forcing several companies to halt or modify advertising claiming that certain videos and other products could help infants learn. It also has helped block proposed state laws that would have allowed advertising on school buses.
The Center for a New American Dream, a nonprofit founded in 1997, says its mission is to help Americans reduce and modify the level of consumption "to improve quality of life, protect the environment, and promote social justice."
Due to their size and high profile, the Girl Scouts have been a frequent target of criticism over the years, notably from certain conservatives who contend - despite the Girl Scouts' repeated denials - that the organization tilts toward the abortion-rights side of the national abortion debate.
Last month, some anti-abortion groups launched a boycott of the Girl Scouts' annual drive to sell cookies.