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Mattel thinks moms need help playing with Hot Wheels

March 12, 2013 at 8:22 AM ET

You wouldn’t know it from looking at my living room floor, but Hot Wheels sales in the U.S. haven’t budged in three years. The problem? According to one Mattel executive, moms just don’t know how to play toy cars with their sons.

Mom “has never played with them,” said Matt Petersen, a vice president at Mattel, told Bloomberg Businessweek. “She doesn’t get why cars, engines, and all the shapes and crashing and smashing are so cool.”

SCREECH. That was the sound of toy car-playing moms everywhere stopping short. My 2-year-old son and I spend hours counting his cars, driving them across the coffee table, and sending them through a “car wash” under the couch. What’s hard to understand about that?

Magda Pecsenye, a parenting writer at AskMoxie.org and an MBA student, says she finds the whole concept insulting as a mom.

“It assumes that moms are stupid and that just because we don't play with Hot Wheels we don't understand the cars,” says the 40-year-old mom of two boys, ages 11 and 7 in Ann Arbor, Mich. “That seems like an enormous leap — to ignorance on the part of the consumer — especially of such a basic product. I'm not a down-on-the-floor mom, so even if I were CEO of Mattel I still wouldn't be having long play sessions with Hot Wheels with my kids. It's not my style. That doesn't mean I'm ignorant or stupid or need to be ‘educated’ on the product. It's a toy car. I get it," Pecsenye says

toy cars
Getty Images stock
What is this strange thing you call "playing cars?" Some toy company executives think moms are baffled by their sons' love of toy cars.

“What flabbergasts me is that Mattel has the nerve to blame moms for their falling sales,” says Rina Neiman, 49, a communications consultant in Stinson Beach, Calif. and mom to a 7-year-old boy. “Mother can be blamed for many things, and I tell my son that he will eventually blame me for many things in his life, but falling toy sales? Please! Not due to our household, that's for sure.”

Petersen’s comments came after Mattel hosted a brunch in Manhattan for bloggers to help women understand why their kids — especially their sons — play with toy cars and how to join in the fun. It’s part of a broader effort to accelerate sales by targeting moms, the primary purchasers of Hot Wheels.

“The real purpose of the meeting was to listen to these moms,” says Mattel spokesperson Rachel Cooper, who was at the meeting. “We asked them, ‘Do you play cars with your son and your daughter? Are there any challenges that you have playing with the cars?’ And we let them know some play tips.”

Cooper stressed that not every mom struggles with playing with toy cars, but said Mattel research shows that some do. “It’s something we thought was important to address,” she said.

At the blogger brunch, Mattel representatives suggested taking a Hot Wheels into the tub to help with bath time. Company reps also pointed out that moms can teach math and organizational skills by lining up the toys in color, size or types.

While some moms are offended by the notion of remedial Hot Wheels lessons, two who attended the brunch meeting said they appreciated the tips.

“They were honestly interested in how we relate to our sons and how they can help us,” says Nancy Johnson Horn, who blogs at TheMamaMaven.com from Queens, N.Y. and has two boys, ages 7 and 2, and a 5-year-old girl. “If there’s a company that’ll help me understand my kids better and share their content and research, I’ll give it a chance. I don’t always understand why my 2-year-old is maniacally throwing cars and then squeals with glee.”

Raijean Stroud, who runs the blog Swa-Rai.com in Oak Park, Ill., said she learned something from the hour-and-a-half long meeting.

“They gave us insight on what boys and men are thinking when they play with toys,” says the mom of a 4-year-old son. “I didn’t know how to relate creativity and fun with cars the same way girls relate creatively with dolls. Now that makes perfect sense to me.”

Still, Pam Davis-Kean, a professor of developmental psychology at the University of Michigan, said Mattel’s thinking about moms and toy cars seems outdated.

“Children’s desire for toys are what usually drives what parents and families buy and if a boy or girl likes playing with cars—then a parent will purchase it,” says Davis-Kean, who studies parents and children in the home environment. “I have no doubt that most mothers are quite comfortable playing with toy cars with their sons and fathers are comfortable playing with dolls with their daughters.”

Corey Binns writes about parenting, health and science. You can follow her @coreybinns.

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