In 1986, the Pleasant Company released a series of 18-inch dolls sold with accompanying books that told their stories from a personal viewpoint.
30 years later, American Girl, a subsidiary of Mattel, operates 20 retail locations where one can shop for dolls ($115) as well as every imaginable accessory ($20-80); host a birthday party ($39 per guest), enjoy a session at the doll hair salon ($10-25); and dine with your doll at the café (reservations book out months in advance).
What drives such strong demand in an otherwise stagnant category?
I asked my 8-year-old daughter. Upon reading the American Girl catalog, she observed, "The way they tell us so much about their lives…” she paused to find the right words. “It makes your heart feel very full."
Indeed, the catalogue tells the story of each doll, using emotive, often breathless language to bring those stories to life: “Traveling to Brazil changed my world. I’m learning to push past my fears and dive right in!” (Lea’s story) and “There was a time that being here made her feel unsafe, but fear cannot silence her joy. Now is her time to sing out!” (Melody’s story)
And that is why American Girl dolls are so wildly popular. Why we pay hundreds of dollars to take dolls to tea or to a beauty salon or buy them clothes as expensive as our own. It’s their stories.
We know all about them, their likes and dislikes, their histories and dreams. The more they tell us about themselves, the more we bond with them.
Stories are so compelling because they capture our imagination, unleash our creativity, and inspire our fondness. Scientifically, they are the most powerful way to activate our brains, lighting up the frontal cortex and causing the release of oxytocin - the “love hormone” - into our bloodstream as we empathize with characters in a narrative. In other words, stories give us full hearts.
As we celebrate this day of St Valentine, may your heart be filled by stories. And if you need help telling yours, drop me a line.