Mauling Mattel and Blasting Britney Spears

It’s been a bit of a media feeding frenzy lately in the entertainment and business pages. For starters, let’s talk Britney. Britney Spears appeared last night on the MTV Video Music Awards in a performance that is being ripped into by the media. CNN.com made perhaps some of the cruelest cuts of all in their story, which I quote here:

“As in most train wrecks, it was hard to focus on just one thing as the Britney Spears disaster unfolded. There was just so much that went wrong. Out-of-synch lip-synching. Lethargic movements that seemed choreographed by a dance instructor for a nursing home. The paunch in place of Spears’ once-taut belly. At times she just stopped singing altogether, as if even she knew nothing could save her performance. Designed to drum up excitement for her upcoming album, Spears’ kickoff to the MTV Video Music Awards on Sunday night became another example of how far she has fallen.”

Beyond that, on page after page of Internet assessment, and gossipy TV show after TV show, stories asked if Britney is Washed Up? and, apparently even worse, “Is Britney Fat?”

Everyone, apparently, loves a train wreck. And it is this aspect of media, which acts delightedly to knock heroes from their perches, that I believe traditional media and media reception theories don’t account for very well. In many of the blog comments I read today, fans stood up for Britney, seeing her as a victim of needless media cruelty (and maybe I just like to side with the underdog but count me among those). But the media keeps on ripping. Britney was idolized as a near-child star, a Golden Girl. Now that she’s a mother of two and getting older, and a little bigger, the media seems to have turned on her like a rabid raccoon. “The paunch in place of Spears’ once-taut belly.” Whoah. That’s definitely hitting below the belt.

In a related story, I actually feel a little bit sorry for poor old Mattel–but only a little bit. The embattled and venerable toy company is really taking it on the chin with its toy recalls for lead paint and tiny magnets that little kids can swallow. Mattel is a brilliant company but like all manufacturers of physical toys they are fighting a difficult battle to keep kids attention and get their “share of playtime” among a generation that loves videogames and screentime.

Mattel has been brilliant in building the Barbie franchise that every academic loves to hate. They have done interesting retro things with the Fisher-Price brand of late, releasing a series of classic toys that appeal to nostalgic boomers and Gen Xers as they have their kids. They also recognized the immense value in the American Girls brand and have done a masterful job of managing that franchise.

But these three waves so far of recalls, August 1, August 14, and September 5, have really begun to put pressure on the company and the stock. Robert Eckert, the company’s chairman and chief executive warned at a press conference last month that there may be more toy recalls. He said that the company was stepping up its investigations into its Chinese factories. He released a statement last Tuesday saying that:

“As a result of our ongoing investigation, we discovered additional affected products. Consequently, several subcontractors are no longer manufacturing Mattel toys.”

It’s interesting the spin that the story has received, with Mattel being linked with its (usually hidden behind the scenes) Chinese factories. This reminds me a bit of the way Nike came out and blamed its subcontractors during the sweatshop furor of the late 1990s. And Mattel’s share price has been, according to the financial reports, “surprisingly resilient.” That’s amazing, given the incredible amount of press that this story has received and the sheer scale of the recalls. Why hasn’t it been more affected?

I think that the media needs to ask more questions about the Chinese-finger-pointing spin the story has received. Senate hearings are going to help a lot with that, and thank goodness for a US Government that isn’t afraid to put its corporations on the stand. Where are the lessons learned? Or isn’t this just business as usual, and look-at-you, you’re the one who just got caught?

Britney and Mattel: two flavors of train wreck. The media seems to love to report on them. But the media makes money either way. Mattel is going to have to advertise even more to regain the faith and trust of their consumers. So they’ll need bigger media spends. And if they crash and burn, that’s a big story too, and the media reports on it, and sells advertising while they’re doing so. Bad news is good news.

And even on the financial and entertainment pages, baby, if it bleeds, it leads.

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