Stretching the Truth

By Lloyd Graff

The American Girl Doll, Ivy, that Lloyd’s granddaughter Eliana received for her birthday (left)

My oldest granddaughter Eliana celebrated her 9th birthday Monday, and her grandmothers splurged on an American Girl doll for her present. She and her sisters love these dolls and they have a small family of them accumulated from several birthdays.

I am fascinated by the success of the doll company, started by Pleasant Rowland in 1986 on a shoestring, an idea and a bit of a lie. She sold her company, called Pleasant Company, to Mattel (owner of Barbie™) in 1998 for $700 million cash.

I have enormous respect for Rowland as a marketer. She built a brand based on history, wholesomeness, and quality that has endured and grown hugely under Mattel’s management. But she fudged the story about the genesis of the doll in her early catalogues. In Rowland’s story of the American Girl Doll, she writes that “deep in the basement of a small museum lies a tattered, water-stained doll trunk. Open the dusty lid and the long-ago childhood of some lucky girl comes instantly to life. Tucked gently inside a beautiful porcelain doll – dearly loved and much played with. I discovered this trunk by chance more than a year after I had begun working on the American Girl Collection. It served as a powerful reminder of why I had begun the collection, and what I hoped it would accomplish.”

However, the story written around this doll and its image is false. The doll was purchased for Sybil Hanks (born 1908) by her parents and named Nancy Hanks. She was kept in pristine condition and never played with before being donated to the Wisconsin Historical Society in 1966 along with Hanks’ entire collection. When Rowland put the doll in the catalogue, it was placed by a water stained trunk to convey a “well-played with” image.

Rowland’s story stretched the truth a little, but don’t we all in business and in life? Haven’t we all said “you look mahvelous!” to a friend who needed a boost, even if they looked pallid and frazzled.

When is stretching the truth a “lie” and when is it just smart marketing or saying the right thing at that moment?

I listened to a fascinating TED talk recently on this subject by Dan Ariely, the brilliant social scientist and commentator. His topic was ‘“cheating” and “stealing” not just lying.’ His point is that we tolerate and even accept a lie if it is perceived not to hurt other people and is believed to be a “small one.” Telling a friend that they “look mahvelous” is probably not going to offend anybody but the most sensitive sourpuss.

But how about Patience Rowland’s little lie to the parents of 8-year-old girls? Did she violate the sense of honesty and purity she meant to convey in her doll creations by dramatizing a fiction to the parents and grandparents who were shelling out a paycheck for dolls and doll clothes dedicated to a purified image of wholesomeness?

I am in the “who cares?” category. We love our stories and myths. They bring meaning and depth to our humdrum lives. My beloved granddaughter Eliana cherishes her dolls and their families. She gobbles up the books about the imagined stories of her doll figures and embellishes her dolls with her own version of their biographies.

The purists who begrudge Patience Rowland her fortune because she saw gold in a romanticized doll story and executed her vision to perfection miss the point. Myths, even made of little lies, are the stuff of life. My Dad and I used to joke around that all our dirty oily screw machines were used by “a little old lady on Sunday.” If we ever found a pristine National Acme that had been sitting in government storage for 25 years, we would call it a “little old lady machine” and laugh.

Stretching the truth. Indulging a little lie. It’s business.

And “you look mahvelous” too!

Question: Is lying a sin?

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12 thoughts on “Stretching the Truth

  1. gordon erickson

    Just remember this; You have to remember every lie you tell. If you have the memory for that, you are way ahead of me. Sticking with the real story seems to work the best when you have to repeat the story again in the future.

  2. Ray Frattone

    Lying is a sin. Having said that, if we are repentant and ask the Lord for forgiveness, it will be totally erased and totally forgotten by Him.

  3. Emily

    I don’t believe in “sin” but I do try to be honest whenever possible. I feel better when honest, and it keeps life more simple. I do have an inherited tendency to exaggerate to make people laugh or feel good, but I notice that people’s reaction to me when I do that is mixed. I react to honest people more openly and feel more respect for them than I do liars or exaggerators, so that’s what I aim for.

  4. Art Santana

    What is the old saying? “If you believe it, it is not a lie.” LOL
    That said, it is way more hurtful to tell the blatant truth at times. as long as no one gets hurt, a little sugar coating never hurt anyone. But whenever someone gets taken advantage of or you benefit business wise because of the lie, well……. We all will be judged sooner or later.

  5. Lloyd Graff

    To the George Washingtons who never told a lie. Thank you.
    Next time you go to a dinner party and the food was mediocre, please tell the host or hostess that the “food stunk”as you walk out he door. And “your dog is ugly and you have bad breath.”

  6. John Bressoud

    Lloyd, this is a tough one. I have a friend, a minister in the church, whom I have great respect for. And often in the pulpit he tells his hunting stories. Over the years I have learned that in the telling of the story, the more times Carl says “now this is a true story”, the more I suspect that Carl is stretching the truth. But the story is an illustration, of what might have happened, to show the point he is trying to make.
    I think there are times when we can talk about things that might have happened. Surely there is such a trunk and such a doll somewhere. But at other times when we know the facts we have to honestly ask what we do we trust more? Our ability to communicate the facts and work with all parties to a satisfactory outcome. Or our ability to not mention some of the facts and hope that others don’t find out. I think it starts with being honest with ourselves.

  7. Peter Frow

    Lloyd, you are positing tactlessness as the only alternative to a “white lie”.
    If your wife asks you what you think of dress that you really don’t like, you could say, “Babe you would look good in anything.”

  8. Beth

    I think you’re missing the point. The story isn’t about how the doll got into the trunk. It’s about her (or someone’s) emotional response when she opened the trunk and saw the doll. An image springs to mind and you have an emotional response to that image. It doesn’t matter what the facts are. Emotional responses are based on things embedded deep within us–things of which we are not even aware.

    Rowland said the doll served as a reminder of what she was trying to create with her business. She was trying to create dolls so special that they would handed down from mother to daughter to granddaughter–that would inspire that same response in those girls. That isn’t a lie.

    As to whether her business succeeded because of this story or not–we can never know. I doubt this one story made that much of a difference. The dolls stood on their own and the niche they filled was real. Not only that, they did a service to society by awakening young girls’ interest in history, not as “dates of wars and deaths of kings”, but as the way people lived. It is only by understanding the past that we can truly create a future in which we would like our grandchildren to live.

    As for truth–well, what is truth and what is a lie? Several people witnessing the same accident will give completely different accounts, all while trying to tell the truth as accurately as possible. One person will say the vehicle that left the scene was a dark blue sedan. Another will say it was a black van. Someone else might say that no vehicle left the scene. One will say the driver of the vehicle was a bald man, another will say it was a woman. Someone might describe a loud bang that preceded the accident. Other people will have heard nothing. Which one of them is lying? Which one telling the truth?

    And LLoyd, as for telling your wife she looks good in everything–if that were true, then telling her she looks marvelous in that particular outfit would also be true, don’t you think? The correct answer is situational. If she is trying on dresses in a store, she wants your honest opinion. She doesn’t want to buy a dress that doesn’t flatter her. She may even be trying to buy a dress that pleases you (but don’t count on it). Similarly, if she is trying to decide which dress to wear to an event, she is looking for your honest opinion, but not necessarily about how she looks, but whether you think it is appropriate for the event. Is this dress too dressy for the restaurant where we are having dinner? On the other hand, if she has already purchased the dress and is showing it off for you, or if she is already dressed for the event and asks you what you think–that is when you have to consider your answer. If the outfit is really hideous, you can always get out of it by answering a question she didn’t ask. “You look just as beautiful as when I fell in love with you.” or “You take my breath away.” or even “It reminds me of why I fell in love with you.”

  9. Dick Crosby

    IN THIS CASE! — I find the mental picture of a happy face on a little girl, or a family member (or members), and then to find out the scenario was a hoax, is just plain sad.
    IN THIS CASE! — What would have been wrong in “Telling it like it really happened”?
    I wonder how Ms. Pleasant Rowland has reflected on her trumped up story, as the years, and the truth have come and gone. Knowing that there have been/are cases of disappointment in learning the real story. Perhaps many.


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