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     Volume 6 Issue 39 | October 5, 2007 |

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Mattel's Confusing Confessions

Srabonti Narmeen Ali

China's ego and economy suffered a huge blow this summer when toy company Mattel Inc., the makers of popular and coveted toys such as Barbie and Hot Wheels, recalled about 20 million toys worldwide because these products were covered in lead paint, which causes lead poisoning in children. Unfortunately for China, Mattel, not wanting to take the fall by themselves, blamed Chinese manufacturers for illegally putting excess amounts of lead paint in these toys. This revelation caused a slew of criticisms for other Chinese products such as food and car tyres, serving as the catalyst for a very subtle and metaphorical barrage against the Chinese government. US consumers were angry, more so at those corrupt people from the east bringing forth their damaged goods, than the capitalist company that puts at risk its own people for the sake of the cheap labour afforded to them by China.

Recently, however, Thomas A. Debrowski, Executive Vice President for worldwide operations at Mattel, made a statement in Beijing to the Chinese Product Safety Chief Li Changjiang in which he said, "Mattel takes full responsibility for these recalls and apologises personally to you, the Chinese people, and all of our customers who received the toys."

Interestingly enough there was a slight amount of confusion over this statement. Most people thought that Mattel was taking responsibility for the toy recalls and therefore apologising for falsely accusing the Chinese manufacturers. However some people were under the impression that Debrowski was making the same apology that he made in Europe and the United States -- that is, an apology to the consumers.

Fortunately, the confusion was cleared up when Debrowski claimed that the "vast majority of those products that were recalled were the result of a design flaw in Mattel's design, not through a manufacturing flaw in China's manufacturers." He also claimed that Mattel might have over-reacted and recalled more toys than necessary and that some toys that they have recalled may have been 'perfectly safe.'

About 17.4 million toys were recalled due to the company's leading problem of strong magnets, which, if they come loose and are swallowed, can tear a child's intestines apart. Mattel conveniently aligned the recalls of these magnet toys along with the 2.2 million toys made with lead paint. Whether this was done intentionally, or whether it was just an opportune coincidence remains a mystery.

But it doesn't end yet. After all, after such an insult -- and such an unjust one at that -- what reaction does the Chinese government have? Adding to this hodgepodge of statements came a warning from Li Changjiang that Mattel should improve its control measures and a reminder that "a large part of your annual profit ... comes from your factories in China," -- a pretty bland reprimand considering that after the preliminary recalls (when Mattel had put the sole blame for the recalls on China) the Chinese media reported that Zhang Shuhong, co-owner of the Lee Der Toy Company, a supplier for Mattel in China, committed suicide by hanging himself in one of his factories. It is a pity that the news about the magnet recalls did not come out sooner.

The verdict? China is not completely blameless in this entire debacle, but it was given more blame than it was responsible for. In June of this year toy company RC2 Corp. recalled 1.5 million Chinese-manufactured railroad toys from one of its product lines because the toys had lead paint and then again in July, Hasbro Inc. recalled Chinese-made Easy Bake ovens because of reports of burns to children. The reason for Mattel's change of heart is simple: 'Mattel needs China as much as China needs Mattel.' Over 65% of their toys are manufactured in China, which is an advantage they cannot afford to lose. So rather than lose their good business over a somewhat small flaw in the greater scheme of things it is better to find a fool-proof way of smoothing over the ruffled feathers of the Chinese as well as the consumers. And the reward they get for their somewhat bad-timed honesty is a slap on the wrist by both parties that they have wronged in more ways than one. However, as Richard Eckert, Mattel Inc.'s chief executive, said at the beginning of this whole fiasco, "We are not perfect." Now that, my friends, is a gross understatement.


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