SALT LAKE CITY — It appears toy giant Mattel has pinpointed the reason sales of its Hot Wheels brand haven't grown over the past few years, and it's not what one might expect.
The culprit, executives claim: clueless mothers.
We may be great at jazzing up dollhouses, whipping up goods in the Easy-Bake Oven and dressing up Barbie. And hey, we can probably even figure out how to turn a pile of building blocks into a fortress.
But the thing is, we just don't "get" how to play cars with our boys. At least according to Mattel vice president Matt Petersen, who runs the company's North American boys' toys and games division.
"She doesn't get why cars, engines, and all the shapes and crashing and smashing are so cool," Petersen told Bloomberg Businessweek, noting this is likely because mom has never played with them.
She doesn't get why cars, engines, and all the shapes and crashing and smashing are so cool.
–Mattel vice president Matt Petersen
The company's most famous toy car brands — Hot Wheels, Matchbox and Tyco R/C — rake in over $1 billion a year. Though that number is nothing to be scoffed at, car sales fell 1 percent in the fourth quarter. U.S. sales of Hot Wheels, Mattel's biggest business targeting boys, haven't gone up in three years.
Ironically, moms happen to be Hot Wheels' biggest buyers, according to Bloomberg Businessweek.
But the company has a plan. Last month, Mattel launched a campaign to help moms take the wheel, get on the ground and zoom around with their sons. Operating under the idea that mothers won't buy products they don't understand, the company hosted a brunch for bloggers in New York City with the goal of teaching women why their sons love cars.
"The real purpose of the meeting was to listen to these moms," Mattel spokesperson Rachel Cooper told Today Moms.
Company representatives also provided tips on how to effectively join in the play, suggesting moms use the cars to build math and organizational skills. Mattel is also sprucing up its website with tips and guides for mothers.
"Having this conversation could be what takes the brand to the next level," Petersen told Businessweek.
But could this bold declaration from the world's largest toymaker actually prompt mothers to slam on the brakes when it comes to purchasing the product? Mattel has received plenty of backlash since its new marketing strategy went public.
"I think it's absurd," said New Jersey mother Lisa Mechanick. "There are no rules about how to play."
Many claim it's just a ridiculous excuse from a company not willing to take responsibility for falling sales.
"Why blame the moms?" said Utah mom Katie Clark. "Do they not think dads can play cars with their sons? Or older siblings? I don't think a child has to really be taught how to play with cars."
It's a simple enough concept — take car, build ramp, let fly. While playing with cars may not be the favorite activity of many mothers, they argue they do it anyway because it gives them time with their children.
"I am perfectly capable of playing with a toy car should my son choose to," said mom Merideth Mecham.
Others said in market dominated by technology and flooded with options, toy cars just can't keep pace anymore. Some suggest the struggling sales have nothing to do with mothers not understanding the product, but more to do with the product itself.
"I find that a lot of their merchandise is too flashy and sensationalized, like emergency vehicles that are shaped like monster trucks that just don't appeal to me or even to (my son)," said Salt Lake City mom Allisen Mathis.
I think it is more likely that because we are in a media-rich age, kids today are less interested in toys like Hot Wheels and more interested in media for entertainment.
–Maureen Braga, Utah mother
"I think it is more likely that because we are in a media-rich age, kids today are less interested in toys like Hot Wheels and more interested in media for entertainment," said Maureen Braga, a mom from Salt Lake City.
Other moms, however, said the company may have a point, and that Mattel's new strategy is a smart one. Many admit they really don't see the fun in toy cars.
"I can make cars vroom as much as the next mom, but really, it's not like you can accessorize cars or dress them up," said Utah mom Lindsay Showalter. "Where's the fun in that?"
"I would rather play anything besides cars with my boy," said Vanessa McMillan, a mom from Arizona. "My attention span lasts a few minutes."
Several of the bloggers who attended the Manhattan brunch said they appreciated Mattel's efforts.
"They were honestly interested in how we relate to our sons and how they can help us," mom and blogger Nancy Johnson Horn told Today Moms. "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."
But the idea that mothers are the overwhelming factor contributing to a stalled brand? A little bogus, if you ask me.
"My inability to play cars has no effect on grandma's ability to purchase them by the case load," said Amy Egbert, Utah mom of two.
Word of advice: watch out dads. If Barbie sales plummet, you might be in the hot seat.