At her Toy Fair debut, we were all about Hello Barbie, a new connected Barbie doll backed by cloud-based speech recognition software that made her a Siri of sorts for kids. We were pretty stoked about it, but it would appear that not everyone shares our enthusiasm. Per a Washington Post report, Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, an advocacy group for children’s privacy, is launching an effort to prevent Hello Barbie from ever hitting shelves.
To do so, they’ve launched the feeblest of protests—the online petition, which always works. The petition is addressed to Mattel CEO Christopher Sinclair, and calls for an immediate halt to the production of Hello Barbie. Why? Well, Hello Barbie is meant to be a personalized toy. Part of the reason Hello Barbie uses natural speech recognition is to learn about kids’ likes and dislikes, so Barbie can tailor her responses to each child. It’s supposed to make for a more engaging and friend-like experience for children, but the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood suspects Mattel has more nefarious things in mind.
In the Washington Post report, executive director of the CCFC, Susan Linn, was quoted as saying “Kids using ‘Hello Barbie’ aren’t only talking to a doll, they are talking directly to a toy conglomerate whose only interest in them is financial.” That’s not false—all of the software powering Hello Barbie will be stored on a cloud server that Mattel has access to, and that cloud server would, by the nature of toy, have to save data about individual kids. Mattel’s official line is that the data will remain secure and private, but the CCFC’s suspicion is that Mattel could open up that data to advertisers down the road, which could then use Hello Barbie as a commercial mouthpiece.
I mean, yeah, kids would be talking directly to a toy conglomerate, and yeah, at the end of the day, Mattel wants to make money. They kinda have to. But if you’re using Hello Barbie to wring your hands about kids being too exposed to advertising in 2015, I honestly don’t know what to tell you. Kids are growing up with tablets and smartphones in their hands. They watch TV! You can’t be alive and not be bombarded with advertising. The CCFC’s mission is noble, but man, this is a Sisyphean task if there ever was one. Bless them for trying, and best of luck to them, but unloading the arsenal on Hello Barbie on the off chance that she’ll start telling kids who like Mexican food to go to Taco Bell for the newest flavor of Doritos Locos Taco seems like maybe not the best use of time.