Pat Curtin

Negotiating the Meaning of Corporate Social Responsibility in a Globalized Context: A Textual Analysis of Mattel’s CSR Policies and Its Response to the 2007 Recall Crisis

According to Mattel’s 2007 Global Citizenship Report, the company works “to be a role model for global citizenship. . . . Our job is to stay the course of ethical practices and continually strive to exceed the expectations our stakeholders have for Mattel as a responsible company” (p. 1). The company is listed on socially responsible investment indices, and an independent auditor has praised Mattel’s transparency and corporate social responsibility (CSR) approach, concluding “Mattel is the gold standard.” A financial analyst observed, “Mattel talks about [CSR] with a passion, and it is not just lip service.” The New York Times article containing these statements concludes that Mattel is possibly “the best role model for how to operate prudently in China” (Barboza & Story, 2007, p. C1).

On August 1, 2007, however, these sentiments were challenged when Mattel announced the first of three recalls over 5 weeks of 20-million Chinese-made toys. Although the recalls prompted Congressional hearings and a temporary sales slide (Konrad, 2007), the crisis hasn’t had a lasting effect on company finances. In 2007, earnings per share and net income rose from 2006 levels, despite Mattel taking $110 million in recall-related charges, and stock prices have bounced back ( Based in large part on its crisis response, Fortune (2008 ) has ranked Mattel one of its 100 best companies to work for. Additionally, IR Magazine has nominated Mattel for its 2008 best crisis communication award (www.thecrossbordergroup. com).

Asian business analysts, however, have suggested that China, where the recalls resulted in layoffs and suicides, was unfairly made the scapegoat (Chandler, 2007): “the recalls have provided a convenient pretext for the all-out, public-relations assault that has ensued. . . . unabashed China bashing has become a mainstay” (Finstad, 2007). That globalization has brought increasing power to MNCs, often at the expense of developing countries, is well documented (Curtin & Gaither, 2007). In 1998, the top 5 MNCs had annual revenues more than double the total GDP of the 100 poorest countries (Global Policy, 2002); by 2003 over 53 of the largest global economies were those of MNCs, not governments (Carroll, 2004). In light of these power disparities, critics have charged that globalization and CSR are necessarily antithetical.

This study uses textual analysis, as outlined by Hall (1975) and others (Acosta-Alzuru & Roushanzamir, 2000; Curtin, 1995), to determine if Mattel’s negotiated meanings of CSR were consonant with its professed commitment to global citizenship. In particular, this study asks

  • What discursive meanings of CSR did Mattel construct before, during, and after the crisis in its communications with its U.S. and Chinese stakeholder groups (i.e., media, consumers, governments, and suppliers)?
  • Did these meanings promote or preclude ethical relationships with each of these global stakeholder groups?

The materials analyzed include Mattel’s Web site as well as video and print news reports from U.S. and Chinese media. Preliminary results indicate often conflicting results, suggesting that the relationship between globalization and CSR is not necessarily an antithetical one, although it is a troubled, complex one.

Professor Pat Curtin

References for Abstract

Acosta-Alzuru, C., & Roushanzamir, E. L. (2000). All you will see is the one you once knew: Portrayals from the Falklands/Malvinas War in U.S. and Latin American newspapers. Journalism & Mass Communication Monographs, 1(4), 301–345.

Barboza, D., & Story, L. (2007, July 26). Dancing Elmo smackdown. The New York Times, p. C1.

Carroll, A. B. (2004). Managing ethically with global stakeholders: A present and future challenge. Academy of Management Executive, 18(20), 114-120.

Chandler, C. (2007, September 25). Why Mattel’s ‘apology’ to China only makes it worse. Chasing the Dragon. Retrieved March 24, 2008, from http://chasingthedragon.blogs.fortune.cnn. com/2007/09/25/why-mattels-apology-to-china-only-makes-itworse/?section=money_news_ international

Curtin, P. A. (1995, August). Textual analysis in mass communication studies: Theory and methodology. Paper presented at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, Washington, D.C.

Curtin, P. A., & Gaither, T. K. (2007). International public relations: Negotiating culture, identity, and power. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Finstad, R. (2007, November). Total recall: A flawed system of trade. Far Eastern Economic Review. Retrieved March 24, 2008, from

Global Policy (2002). UN Commission on Trade and Development: Multinational corporations in least developed countries. Retrieved March 24, 2008, from reform/2002/modelun.pdf

Hall, S. (1975). Introduction. In A. C. H. Smith (Ed.), Paper voices: The popular press and social change, 1935–1965 (pp. 11–24). London: Chatto & Windus.

Konrad, R. (2007, October 13). Retailers made a play for toys made in USA. Associated Press, in The Register Guard, p. D1.

Mattel (2007). Global responsibility report. Retrieved September 19, 2007, from http://www.

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