TALE OF RUDE MERMAID DOLL SOUNDS FISHY, MATTEL SAYS
Her hair is bright red. Her mermaid tail lights up purple and green. She sings and says things like, “The sparkles are so beautiful.''
But this week in San Jose, Stephanie Herrera, 40, who describes herself as a “Christian mother with values'' says she heard Princess Ariel say something obscene:
“You're a slu-ut,'' the Disney doll seems to say with a smile, but only when you push her button three times fast, in a particular rhythm.
“It's horrifying,'' said Herrera, whose daughter, Juliana, now repeats the phrase.
But it's unclear whether Herrera's complaint — the first Mattel has heard about the Shimmering Lights Ariel doll — will be a holiday refund nightmare, or a sales booster. Ariel is one of Disney's hottest princesses this season, as “The Little Mermaid'' is being released for the first time on DVD.
Mattel officials dispute Herrera's claim but said they would be happy to give her a voucher for a replacement.
“Sometimes this type of controversy makes a toy all the more desirable,'' said Stephanie Oppenheim, who publishes an independent toy guide, the annual Oppenheim Toy Portfolio. “The more quirky toys tend to be more attractive to adult collectors.''
Oppenheim pushed Ariel's button from New York at the Mercury News' request. She heard the profanity, but only after listening extremely closely. Her mother, Joanne, who is president of the company, listened, too. She called out from the background, “I just can't hear it.''
Whatever it sounds like Ariel is saying, however, “doesn't sound purposeful,'' Oppenheim said. She advised parents to test the “try-me'' buttons at the store before bringing toys home.
“I think this woman should calm down and get a new doll,'' she said.
When Visali Scandalis, Mattel's brand liaison coordinator, called Herrera Friday to investigate her e-mailed complaint, he told her that he heard the phrase, but only because of the “power of suggestion.''
Mattel spokeswoman Sara Rosales said she pushed the doll's button herself Friday morning, and discussed the issue with toy designers and marketers. No one heard anything unseemly.
“There's no possible way she could say that,'' Rosales said. Perhaps someone tampered with the doll, she wondered. Herrera insisted that wasn't the case.
The doll is sold at major stores including Target, Wal-Mart and Toys R Us, and ranges in price from about $20 to $30.
“Children's safety and well-being are first and foremost,'' Rosales said.
The issue first came to light early this week. Herrera's 19-year-old son, Erich, was goofing around with the new doll his sister got for her birthday last month. He was jamming up the button on Ariel's back. Juliana began mimicking the sped-up phrase. Played with at a regular speed, Ariel says three sentences very sweetly: “You're a wonderful friend,'' “Sparkles are so beautiful,'' and “Life is the bubbles.'' She also sings a wordless tune that in the film makes Prince Eric fall for her.
Herrera also bought several similar Ariel dolls at Wal-Mart, which she had planned to sell on eBay. She said she likes to sell the toys online for homebound people.
Disney toys and movies are no stranger to controversy and sexual innuendo. When “The Little Mermaid'' came out on video in 1989, some versions of the promotional materials showed a phallic tower atop a castle, which spawned an urban legend that it was prank by a disgruntled Disney illustrator. And some say they see the dandelions Simba plays with in “The Lion King'' spelling out s-e-x.
For now, Herrera has taken the shimmery doll away from Juliana, and replaced it with a Fisher Price manger scene. Juliana's not thrilled. Her mother said she would much rather be dancing around the apartment with a singing Ariel than a donkey and baby Jesus. As for Christmas presents, Herrera plans to play it safe. No princesses. Just in case.
“We're going to get her a Cabbage Patch doll,'' she said.