Mattel's Manic Week: Beyond the Apology

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Bejiing, ChinaIt has been nearly seven days since Mattel, in an historic announcement, apologized to the Chinese government and citizens in Beijing on September 21st. While many of the recalled Mattel toys did, indeed contain toxic lead paint, the larger issue in this case was a design flaw that originated with Mattel itself. At issue were toys with tiny magnets that could be ingested, and prove harmful to a child.

In so doing, Mattel took the ultimate high road. The recipient of that apology, it turns out, offered a lukewarm reception.

The official English-language China Daily newspaper was upbeat, but reserved: "The apology, though delayed, should help dispel the suspicion American customers harbor against Chinese-made products and clean up the stain the recalls left on the innocent Chinese workers who make a living doing honest labor."

mattel toy recall babyThe state-run Guangzhou Daily was a little less generous in an editorial that appeared Monday, taking the position that Mattel's apology was a little late, "but at least it redressed injustice against toys made in China.

"It is still too early to say we are happy."

In the wake of the latest toy recall from China, announced just yesterday by the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) and a mere two days after the Guangzhou Daily editorial, those statements seem laughable.

One can only imagine what Mattel's thoughts are, on this day - with China once again in the news over tainted toys.

Beijing defends itself by insisting that the vast majority of Chinese products are safe, and claims to have stepped up inspections. Among the checks are inspections of agricultural products to quell the use of banned pesticides, and the overuse of animal feed additives and fertilizers. According to Vice Minister of Agriculture Gao Hongbin, ten individuals have been arrested and as many as 100 offending companies have been closed since August.

It's all part of a four month campaign by the government State Council, to improve the quality of Chinese exports.

Meanwhile, in Brussels, the European Commission (EC) announced Tuesday that it intends to propose mandatory testing of certain classes of toys, in a further effort to eradicate unsafe products.

"I would like to see the mandatory certification of certain types of toys," said European industry commissioner Guenter Verheugen in a statement that appeared in the Agence France-Presse. The comment was made during a recent debate at the European parliament in Strasbourg.

Of particular concern are the chemicals, such as lead, that have been showing up in painted surfaces and make-up, and the small magnets that could be swallowed by a child.

Ironically, the EC formulated its intent as a direct result of the recent massive Mattel recall, which included the magnetized toys for which Mattel apologized to China on September 21st.

Given the latest recall of additional Thomas and Friends toys which contained painted surfaces - announced just yesterday - one could argue that Mattel's apology was somewhat premature. Indeed, apologize and take ownership for a design flaw. But extend an olive branch to China?

In hindsight, the move was perhaps a bit hasty.

Obviously, with so much of its toy production happening on Chinese soil, Mattel probably did what it thought it must do for optimum damage control. There may have been an internal need for a direct apology to China, for reasons consumers can't fathom. However, in the afterglow of yet another toy recall, and the reasonable expectation of more to come until the Chinese government's crackdown and intensified controls take effect, Mattel's position appears curious and somewhat premature.

In fairness to those charged with getting China's house in order, the task at hand is gigantic given the size and heft of the juggernaut that is the Chinese export industry (China is now the single largest trading partner of the United States, a position once held by Canada). It will take more than a few months to fix an industrial culture perceived to be governed by greed and sleight of hand, rather than fairness and safety as Job One.

In the end, the consumer wields the power - and what rolls out in the form of apologies, recalls, or the pursuit of unscrupulous manufacturers has everything to do with protecting market share, and sending the message to an educated consumer that the industry 'gets it.'

Manufacturers know - or at least they should - that consumers know what's going on. Today's consumer is educated, informed and no longer blindly trustful of the company making the toys for their kids. Pluck a toy from a store shelf - even if Mattel, the world's largest toy manufacturer, makes it - and your first thought is, "where was this made, and is it safe?"

No longer are we looking for the Union label. Now, it's the offshore label that remains the focus - and with every recall, the consumer becomes a bit more wary and distrustful.

Perhaps Mattel needed to apologize to China for reasons of corporate relations. However, it has left the consumer confused. Especially now, when that consumer is poised to cruise the store aisles in pursuit of presents for under the Christmas tree.

Instead of apologizing to China, manufacturers need to be apologizing to the consumer. Especially with the key Christmas buying season on everyone's mind.

That, and the safety of our kids.

Sarah Flynn, a mother of two from Sioux Falls Iowa, has a bag of Sesame Street and Dora the Explorer toys safely out of reach from her five-year-old daughter, and one-year-old son.

Toys, made in China, that were recalled due to elevated levels of lead in the paint.

Toys that Sarah isn't sure she can take back, because the paint is so chewed off.

Think about it...

Mattel Toy Recalls Legal Help

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