Learning From Mattel's Chinese Apology

The toy maker reminds Americans that not all mistakes are made in China.

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If this were happening in the United States, it would be unremarkable. But since the backdrop is China, the latest twist in the Great Mattel Toy Imbroglio is shrouded in suspicion, fear, and political grandstanding.

After several recalls this year involving millions of toys, Mattel is making headlines once again—this time, for the outrageous act of apologizing to its Chinese manufacturers. In a high-profile meeting with Chinese business and political officials, the head of Mattel's global operations, Thomas Debrowski, said that the company "apologizes personally to you, the Chinese people, and all of our customers who received the toys."

An American apologizing to the Chinese? He must have had a gun to his head, right? Or be part of some big conspiracy that will ultimately lead China to world domination? "It would not be beyond the realm of possibility," one blogger fretted, "to think that the Chinese pressured Mattel into its statement."

So now the Chinese have become so powerful that they call the shots at America's biggest companies....

Whoa. Look, I'll readily acknowledge that corporate execs often have ulterior motives and tend to say things that serve the company's bottom line. But if we Americans can swallow our national pride for a moment and get over the notion of an apology to "lesser people" from other countries, we can learn a few important things from Debrowski's remarks:

• First, he attributed a big part of Mattel's recent problems to a design flaw that came from America—not from shortfalls on assembly lines in China. For all of our import-bashing, it's worth keeping in mind that we are capable of screwing up here, too.

• Mattel, he said, had recalled more toys than necessary, which made it seem as if there were more problems among its Chinese suppliers than there actually were. Isn't that what we want a company to do when it discovers that its products pose a risk—go overboard to fix the problem?

• Finally—Debrowski accepted blame! "Mattel takes full responsibility," he told the Chinese officials. Sure, maybe heads should roll at Mattel, and he might be kowtowing a bit with a lavish public apology witnessed by a roomful of reporters invited by Mattel. But compare that to drawn-out disputes like the Ford-Firestone scandal over disintegrating tires on SUVs, which erupted in 2000 and went on for years as the two companies threw bombs at each other—while consumers wondered which side to believe. Which approach is better? Taking the blame now lets Mattel fix the problem, move on, and start cleaning up its reputation. Just as important, it helps consumers know what went wrong and who's responsible for fixing the problem. That's the only outcome that will allow them to feel comfortable, once again, buying Mattel products.

The Chinese toy recalls have highlighted many of the things that Americans find scary about the so-called global economy: It's hard to know where products come from or what's in them, and it turns out that government and industry both aren't paying enough attention to the safety of imports. But the recalls are also an opportunity to help explain and clarify how products get from far-flung factories into the homes of Americans. Mattel messed up, but now the company is bringing a welcome degree of transparency to an issue that seems complex and murky to most of us. So hurry up and pay attention, before the politicians and fearmongers muddle it up.

international trade
product safety
  • Rick Newman

    Rick Newman is the author of Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback to Success and the co-author of two other books. Follow him on Twitter or e-mail him at rnewman@usnews.com.

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