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Idol Chatter

I was a bit irked several weeks ago when I heard about “Gwen,” the one-time homeless girl that makes up American Girl‘s contemporary 2009 Girl of the Year lineup. Irked not because I think that the plight of the homeless, or the attendant bullying suffered by Gwen in her story, is an inappropriate subject to introduce to the young, even through play, but because none of the proceeds from the ninety-five dollar doll go directly to charity.
Sure, American Girl has been working with HomeAid America, a leading national nonprofit provider of housing for the homeless, since 2006, and they have successfully addressed important social issues with other dolls, including Addy Walker, an escaped slave who is trying to reunite her family, and the Depression-era, penny-pinching Kit Ketteridge. But, American Girl is taking a problem that is less safely historical and merchandising it in the same way. In this recession, with more and more individuals and families becoming homeless, surely the Mattel-owned company could give a generous percentage of the sales of the even-in-economically-good-times-exorbitantly priced doll to charity?
The doll debuted nine months ago and was meant to be more like a Skipper to “Girl of the Year” Chrissa’s Barbie, so Gwen’s existence has flown under the radar of those other than the American Girl-obsessed, who give her a five star rating on the site, but still, who was the marketing genius who thought this one through?


Possibly the same folks who thought that a $25,000 commemorative Gandhi pen was a good idea. Montblanc, the German pen maker, has a long history of producing opulent special edition pens, including a Writers Series with examples named for Hemingway and Virginia Wolff and a Patron of the Arts Series that includes a “Pope Julius II” fountain pen replete with the pontiff’s seal. The gold and silver limited edition pen marks the 140th anniversary of the famously ascetic political and spiritual leader’s birth.
In this case, a percentage of sales will go to two different charities, including the Mahatma Gandhi Foundation headed by the Mahatma’s great grandson, Tushar Gandhi. The pens come replete with a book of Gandhi quotations and a 26-foot, gold thread to wrap around the writing utensil, which is meant to evoke the the spindle Gandhi used to weave cotton cloth, the fabric of the resistance movement.
If $25,000 is too rich for your blood, Montblanc offers a more reasonably priced line of roller ball and fountain pens starting at $3,200. Oliver Goessler, Montblanc’s regional director for India, Africa and the Middle East, told the Associated Press that the idea for the pen was “born in India, not in Europe,” but that isn’t stopping the Kerala, India-based Center for Consumer Education from filing suit to stop distribution.
PR-types for both American Girl and Mont Blanc are surprised at the controversy surrounding their products, which is hard to believe. But, in the end, it may be the controversy that brings attention to the very causes represented by these collectibles. Maybe it takes outrage over a homeless doll to drum up outrage over the increasing number of homeless Americans. And maybe it takes Mont Blanc to remind us of the teachings of one of the world’s greatest peaceful revolutionaries–swords into pens and all that–during these troubled times.
What do you think? Will you be boycotting American Girl, as some have declared, or buying BiCs instead?

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