The Unpleasant Truth Behind Mattel's Unexpected Apology

Mattel Executive Vice President for Worldwide Operations Thomas Debrowski recently surprised consumers and policy makers alike by offering an exceptional and expansive apology to Li Changjiang, the head of China’s General Administration for Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine:

Mattel takes full responsibility for these recalls and apologises personally to you, the Chinese people and all of our customers who received the toys. It is important for everyone to understand that the vast majority of these products that we recalled were the result of a flaw in Mattel’s design, not through a manufacturing flaw in Chinese manufacturers.

For months, Mattel has blamed rogue Chinese subcontractors for endangering American children by violating Mattel’s strict safety standards in pursuit of profit. The truth revealed hiding in plain sight by Debrowski’s apology is slightly more complex.

Time best explains the discrepancy between Debrowski’s apology and Mattel’s public position:

Of the 19.6 million toys that [Mattel] has recalled this year globally, 2.2 million were due to lead paint; the remaining 17.4 million (11.7 million in the U.S.) were toys recalled not because of lead paint but because they were made with super-strong magnets.

The United States bans the use of lead in children’s toys. Lead contamination can be rightly and exclusively traced to foreign subcontractors. Small magnets, however, which can kill children if ingested, are the result of shoddy designs.

Mattel focused its public response primarily on the smaller issue, lead contamination, which lends itself to easy scapegoating. Irresponsible Chinese subcontractors are responsible for tainting 2 million toys destined for U.S. shelves, but they by no means shoulder full responsibility for Mattel’s problems.

Slipshod Mattel designs are, as Debrowski’s apology suggests, responsible for the “vast majority” of dangers faced by American children. Mattel and the toy industry have worked overtime to distract from this unsettling and inescapable fact. As Slate superbly explains, the industry’s sham proposal for independent third-party testing would do nothing to address the design issues that are root cause of the vast majority of toy recalls.

Now that Debrowski has apologized to China, it seems only fair for Mattel’s conniver-in-chief, Robert Eckert, to explain to American consumers why his company chose to scapegoat Chinese subcontractors while keeping the true death-peddlers on Mattel’s payroll.

Why Mattel Apologized to China [Time]
(AP Photo/Lauren Victoria Burke)


Edit Your Comment

  1. azntg says:

    From before this was posted, I already figured something was up when Mattel apologized to China, especially when they were on a PR run blaming (sub)contractors in China.

    I hope this is enough to ruin Mattel’s credibility for a while, but then again, Americans in general seem to have a short attention and memory span anyhow…

  2. BrockBrockman says:

    @azntg: Nope, they’ll still remember to blame China for every single perceived defect in every product.

  3. mantari says:

    Crow: EATEN

  4. Buran says:

    Excuse me, but how exactly does this mean we should forget about the fact that China is responsible for trying to poison us? They KNOW that lead is banned here. And yet they used it in America-bound products anyway. There’s no excuse for that and trying to shift the blame away toward someone else doesn’t change it.

  5. humphrmi says:

    @Buran: As the article points out, not all Mattel recalls have been about poison, in fact only about 11% of recalled toys had “poison” problems, the rest were designed here in the good old USA with fatal flaws.

    So yes, blame China and make them fix their problem that contributed to 11% of Mattel’s recall problem, then apologize for blaming them for all of the problem because in fact 89% of the recalls were not China’s fault.

    That’s all the article is saying.

  6. ooolam says:

    It is amazing how companies or media can easily manipulate the general public. An example about the Simplicity cribs recall, CNN has it reported as:

    “1 million Chinese-made cribs recalled”

    Short Description:
    “Simplicity brand cribs made in China are recalled following reports of three infant deaths and entrapment; suffocation concerns.”

    Yet, the recall was because of design and hardware faults, which has nothing to do with whether the cribs were made in China or not.


  7. RvLeshrac says:

    Yes, but should we really be angry about magnets? It isn’t painfully obvious to the average person that magnets would be dangerous to children.

    Should we just never use them again in applications where they might come loose? It is just as easy for a child to swallow two refrigerator magnets.

    When I was little, we had the little magnetic letters and whiteboards. The magnets came loose on those all the time. I don’t recall the people around me going insane about that, why this?

    That’s not to say that they aren’t necessarily dangerous, but more that the response needs to be tempered. Nearly ANY toy can be dangerous. Kids can pull the arms off of action figures and feed them to their smaller siblings, but I don’t see a recall of every single posable action figure ever made, to be replaced by action figures made of solid molded plastic.

  8. FLConsumer says:

    @RvLeshrac: It’s because we wrap kids up in bubble wrap now. Anything which *might* possibly hurt them suddenly has to be removed/taken away/eliminated, even if it’s a 0.0000000001% chance. I’m afraid to see how they’re going to turn out.

    I’m all for keeping kids safe, but at the same time, they need to be allowed to be kids. Bring back lawn dart and the Bag O’ Broken Glass! I miss those two toys.

  9. Zanpakuto says:

    I recall seeing in I think it was CNN.COM a couple of weeks ago where China was saying the responsibility of the recall was on Mattel. I couldn’t agree more, if American companies didn’t outsource business to corrupt countries where bribery and a disregard for any kind of moral standard are rampant, then they would not be having this problem.

  10. jaredgood1 says:

    Once again, this proves why the two greatest toys are (and forever will be): sticks and cardboard boxes.

  11. CumaeanSibyl says:

    @RvLeshrac, the magnets used on your whiteboard letters were probably low-strength ferrite magnets, and wouldn’t have caused you much trouble if swallowed; the neodymium magnets they use in some toys nowadays are powerful enough to tear through tissue when attracted to each other inside the body.

    Now, they aren’t really dangerous unless they’re removed from the toy, but then small parts on any toy aren’t considered a choking hazard unless there’s a defect in the toy’s design/manufacture that makes the part easily detachable. Difference is, if you manage to swallow a regular small part, you’ll be fine; if you swallow two or more of those magnets, it can kill you.

    I agree with allowing kids to be kids, but I think falling out of trees is a better way to do that than swallowing potentially lethal substances.

  12. FLConsumer says:

    @jaredgood1: Refrigerator boxes & big-screen TV boxes were awesome! Washer & dryer boxes were a good 2nd best if you could get a few of them and tape them together.

  13. Starfury says:

    @jaredgood1: Don’t forget to add garbage can lids; you can’t have a good stick fight without your trusty shield!

  14. ViperBorg says:

    @Starfury: Ooo! Ooo! Ooo! Don’t forget the big tires for tucking inside them and rolling down the hills!

  15. Covert7 says:


    Very nice. Not sensationalist at all!

    I mean it’s good to call companies out when they mess up but uh calling them “death-peddlers” seems a bit nuts.

  16. jeffeb3 says:

    I’m not usually the rumor starting, finger pointer. But doesn’t walmart do a hell of a lot of business with mattel? Isn’t most of the stuff walmart sells made in China? Interesting…

  17. NightSteel says:

    I think Fark had it right.

    Mattel: “We’re sorry for blaming it all on you, China. Please don’t make us go make toys somewhere else where it will cost twice as much.”

  18. Buran says:

    @humphrmi: And yet, what about personal responsibility? It was China that produced the unsafe goods, and no one there said “wait a minute, this design is not safe, this paint is not safe, STOP” and they could have. They didn’t.

  19. hapless says:


    That doesn’t make any damn sense. It’s irrational to expect manufacturers to be experts in product safety. There’s just no overlap in expertise.

  20. opbrat says:

    Mattel closes its American manufacturing plants and now has to face the consequences of its actions. Perhaps an apology to the American people is in order. I’m very leery of buying anything that has the ” made in China ” label. I would rather pay a premium for a well-made product manufactured in the USA. Mattel never gave me that option.

  21. miburo says:


    You gotta be kidding with that statement. Each country has different safety laws and regulations, why would you expect them to check toys designed by American companies for American consumers?

    The blame falls on both sides for the lead and the design. But it’s obvious that America needs to start looking at it’s own companies and corners they cut trying to make products cheaper and cheaper.

  22. lordmaxwel says:

    Actually the fault lies completely on Mattel – it is their responsiblity to check safety standards. You want to know the real kicker? Some people at Mattel probably received a price list with a breakdown of all components of the toy and agreed to the lead paint. There is your kick in the pants for the day.

  23. Trai_Dep says:

    In defense to the many fine commentators here, the vast bulk, if not the totality, of the ire directed towards the China Poison Train was based on lead paint, anti-freeze, hormones, etc. That is, exactly the types of jaw-droppingly hostile, homicidal actions for which China richly deserves our scorn and hostility.

    Are Consumerist commentators smarter than the global business press? Yes!

  24. BrockBrockman says:

    For the record, I still blame China for the lead paint fiasco.

    But that doesn’t mean I can’t still blame American company Mattel for the deadly magnets.

  25. rikkus256 says:

    Lead paint is not the the only thing from the chinese poison train. Don’t forget all those poison groceries, poison foods, explosive batteries, and many others which china is still responsible for.

  26. rikkus256 says:

    And by knowing how communist chinese goverment behave, what else do you expect Mattel ceo to say? If he doesn’t apologize I bet you chinese government will start investigating Mattel’s tax issues in china.

  27. nhoj1962 says:

    This apology story is the slowest Consumerist has posted anything regarding the so-called Chinese poison train. Perhaps because in this instance all the piling on China was perhaps, I don’t know, 89% misdirected? Being a consumer advocate doesn’t mean abandoning fairness or humility, but I know, don’t shoot the messenger….

  28. magus_melchior says:

    @Buran: In the case of bad design, I’m pretty sure the onus is on the product design team (i.e., Mattel) to thoroughly test the bejeezus out of the design BEFORE sending it to the manufacturers (i.e., China). While I’m sure that there’s a chance that someone in China said, “Hey, these magnets could fall out,” their boss probably replied, “Shut up and fill that order, or the Americans won’t pay us.”

  29. mammalpants says:

    not until they agree to put a giant “Now Lead Free!” sticker on Barbie boxes will I ever buy another Mattel toy…then, it will just be because of the hilarity of the sticker.

  30. cncrndconsumer says:

    I think both are to blame. What I am wondering is has Mattel looked into whether or not the factories in China that manufacture their toys are fair trade? They were blaming Chinese subcontractors, do they know those subcontractors are not using enslaved Buddhist monks to manufacture the toys? This is a different issue, but is just as important, and makes me want to boycott all made in China toys, shoes, etc..