How American Girl’s Storied Dolls Became Such a Surprising Success

An empire started by a schoolteacher

Late in 2013, a new crop of videos began surfacing on YouTube. They featured everyday themes like going food shopping and eating out. One of them even notched over 14 million hits. Their amateur directors (nearly all of them young girls) shot the films using stop-motion animation. By last year, there were so many of these movies that they became their own genre—AGSM. 

 Translated: America Girl Stop Motion.

Photo: Nick Ferrari

It's hardly the first time that American Girl dolls made the cultural radar screen. For young ladies aged 7-12, there may be no toy more coveted than these 18-inch tall, highly realistic, ethnically diverse and politically correct playthings—yours for only $120 a piece.

American Girl sells historic dolls, twin dolls, "Bitty Baby" dolls and dolls that girls can create themselves with 40 different combinations of hair, eye and skin color. But American Girl dolls are not just dolls. They're the gateway to a fully themed world of clothing, accessories and even furniture. Each doll (to date, 29 million sold) comes with a series of books (153 million sold). Of course, there's a website (52 million visits yearly)—but there's also a magazine (circulation 350,000) and a chain of retail stores (80 million visitors to date) that include—stay with us, here—doll restaurants, doll hair salons and a space for doll parties.

An empire like this doesn't happen by accident. The only doll in the same league is Barbie, and one of her sells every three seconds. Nevertheless, Barbie would be jealous of the kind of bond that develops between American girls and American Girl dolls. And what explains that? American Girl has gone out of its way to craft elaborate biographies for each doll character it makes, giving each a sort of personality that seemingly transcends the soft vinyl figure in question.

"While it would be easy to call us a doll company, we've always thought of ourselves as storytellers," said American Girl's vp of marketing Julia Prohaska, "creating inspiring stories and advice that help girls reach their full potential and ultimately connect girls with each other across time, across circumstances and across generations."

Which was the mission (more or less) when schoolteacher Pleasant Rowland developed the dolls in 1985, pairing each with a corresponding series of books detailing the doll's imagined historical background—Felicity, the colonial-era tomboy, say, or Kirsten the Scandinavian farm girl. "I wanted to give girls an understanding of America's past and a sense of pride in the traditions they share with girls of yesterday," Rowland has said.

Critics contend that such idealism faded when Mattel bought the brand in 1998 for $700 million, though the company has maintained the tradition of issuing ethnically diverse dolls. Some (like Russian-Jewish émigré Rebecca) have been well received. Others (like Latina Marisol Luna, who flees her inner-city neighborhood for the safety of the suburbs) have not. Say what you want, though, girls like the dolls—enough, in some cases, to make stop-motion YouTube movies with them. 

 

This story first appeared in the April 18 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.