When Dubai-based mum Helly O’Brien first heard about the ‘Lol doll ice water experiment’, and how it can reveal ‘secret sexual messaging’ hidden on the dolls’ bodies, she didn’t take it too seriously.
As the mother of three daughters aged 2, 7 and 11, her girls had been playing with LOL Surprise! Dolls for years, and they loved the popular kids’ toy range for their big eyes, bulbous heads and pot bellies, which make them “look sweet” says Helly. There had never been any reason to suspect anything sinister.
“I didn’t believe it really, but I wanted to show that my girls’ toys were ‘safe’, so I gave the experiment a go," she told Gulf News.
The experiment was simple: filling a bucket with ice water, and placing her daughter's unclothed LOL dolls inside to see what would happen.
What she discovered took her breath away. “I was horrified,” she says. “I couldn’t believe what I saw. I knew that certain LOL doll series would change colour with water. But I didn’t expect to see hidden messages in inappropriate places, nor did I think something like this would be allowed to be manufactured.”
The LOL doll ice experiment
The LOL doll ice water test has been doing the rounds on social media over the past few days after an Australian mother posted a video on August 15 of her dunking her daughter’s undressed LOL Surprise! Dolls in ice water.
The dolls start off plain or skin-coloured, but on being submerged in cold water they reveal what Australian mum Kate Worsfold describes as highly inappropriate markings, with one showing “bandage-style underwear with the word ‘caution’ written across her private parts, and shackles on her wrists”.
Worsfold’s video has since been viewed more than 8.5 million times, and the news quickly reached the UAE, where Dubai-based mum Helly made her own video, which has so far garnered almost 80,000 views.
In her video, Helly explains that all of her girls’ LOL dolls have been previously submerged in bath water, pool water and sea water and they’d never noticed any changes in them – until they put them into a bucket of ice. “When you put them into a bucket of ice, you’ll see that they are not made for children,” says Helly, visibly upset. “Or they are made to manipulate children… They’re not trying to keep our children safe from what we want to keep our children safe from.”
Helly goes on to demonstrate the effect that the ice water has on a variety of her children’s LOL dolls, with some revealing lewd, bondage-style lingerie, inappropriate tattoos, and she says one even reveals sexualised knickers, "with the words ‘Get me’ written across her private parts’”.
Army of mums
Across Dubai, mums’ instant messaging chats and social media groups have been ablaze with remarks of shock and disgust at the sight of Helly’s video, which she shared on her Facebook account and Instagram stories.
“These are toys for little girls,” says Helly. “Crotchless panties and bondage have no place in a child's toy box. Toys should be clean and innocent - not with hidden sexual messages to target and groom children.
“As parents we have a collective responsibility to protect all children and to make sure people creating toys or movies that take away a part of their innocence are made to account for their wrongdoings.”
Helly, along with her friend, Dubai-based Australian speaker, author and Paralympian Jessica Smith OAM, is calling for the LOL dolls to be boycotted. Helly says: “We need to stop turning a blind eye. We need to raise awareness and report where we can. We need to not let the world desensitize us from things that simply are not right, funny or acceptable.”
Jessica, who is also a diversity and inclusion consultant, says that she was first made aware of the LOL dolls after she found out about another problematic children’s toy, the "Trolls World Tour Giggle and Sing Poppy" doll, which hit headlines recently for an inappropriately placed button.
Located underneath the Troll doll’s skirt, another viral video showed a mum demonstrating how pressing this button on the Poppy doll leads to it making giggling and gasping noises. The Poppy doll has since been withdrawn from circulation after an online petition amassed more than 300,000 signatures.
Part of a larger issue
The LOL doll controversy is just a small part of a much wider, more serious problem, says Jessica Smith. “I think the issue here is that there’s a major corporation that has created dolls that have this hidden, sexualised messaging, targeted at young children,” she says.
“We’ve become so desensitised in our generation and we have got used to normalising behaviour, words, symbolisms and things that represent sexuality – whether it’s song lyrics or suggestive phrases on certain items of clothing.
“But we have to start being more aware of the age appropriateness of the things our children are being exposed to. Because if we don’t say this is not OK, then it becomes normal, and kids then grow up with this hyperawareness of sexualisation, which I think we are already seeing in the younger generations and it’s a real issue.”
Jessica cites the high numbers of children that are being trafficked and abused each year and says that one of the concerns with these sorts of toys is that they can be used as a tool for child grooming.
Child grooming is defined as befriending and establishing an emotional connection with a child to lower his or her inhibitions with the objective of sexual abuse, and Jessica says that the vast majority of sexual abuse of children is perpetrated by someone they know.
“When it’s normalised that toys are wearing sexy outfits and toys have got buttons that make funny sounds in their private parts, it’s a conversation starter for those people who are grooming our children.
“I’ve realised that people would prefer to put their head in the sand and think it’s not happening in their neighbourhood. But it absolutely is. And toys like these are part of the problem.”
How the manufacturers are reacting
LOL dolls are big business. Invented back in 2015 and targeting the 4-14 age bracket of children, toymakers MGA Entertainment were expected to make $5 billion from LOL doll sales in 2019, according to the New York Times.
The dolls are hugely popular in the UAE too, and Helly O’Brien says that last year the most sought-after LOL doll for Christmas was retailing in Dubai for around Dh600.
Jonathan Watts, General Manager of Toys R Us, which distributes LOL dolls across the MENA region, said in a statement to Gulf News that, since being alerted to the controversy, they have taken the decision to remove the products from their stores:
“The quality control of toys that are available through our stores and online is the responsibility of the distributor and our role is to ensure that the products we buy comply with relevant safety measures. The LOL range is a worldwide success which we also see reflected in our market. When we were alerted of the issues of this particular product, we were able to react very quickly to remove all products from our store and ecommerce offering to ensure we could protect our customers. As ever, we remain committed to ensuring all products we sell reflect the Toys R Us brand values.”
Meanwhile the LOL doll toy makers MGA Entertainment, which has been inundated on social media by customers asking for answers, said in a statement to Fast Company that it hears the criticism loud and clear.
“We work very hard to be a brand that listens and adapts to our fans’ requests. We acknowledge the recent feedback received and thank you for bringing it to our attention. We have implemented comprehensive corrective measures to our design and approval process while ensuring the essence of the brand is kept intact.”
Fast Company reports that MGA did not specify which changes it was making or has already made, but considering this is not the first time the dolls’ markings have caused controversy, it’s likely some changes were already underway.
Another side to the debate?
Although this controversy has only recently come to the attention of the wider public, these LOL dolls and their colour-changing features are not new, with complaints about them on social media site Reddit dating back to 2019.
While the hidden quality of the lingerie-like markings has seemed particularly sinister to many parents, fact-checking website Snopes.com says that the surprise factor is a key element of the LOL Surprise! Dolls brand.
Sold in opaque packaging – so kids don’t know what they are getting until they’ve unwrapped them – they were invented to capitalise on the unboxing trend, with multi-layered elements of surprise woven into the box, in the doll’s clothing and into the colour-changing features – which for some dolls emerge when exposed to heat, for others when exposed to cold, to water and so on.
“This colour change can affect the doll’s clothes, clothing accessories, hair, and the doll’s skin,” reports Snopes. “When these dolls are not wearing clothing and are dipped in water, it’s possible for this design to resemble lingerie. While this may be news to some social media users in 2020, these dolls have been around for several years, and the marketing material for this product mentions this color-changing feature.”
Not all parents are concerned by the lingerie aspect. Mother Val Kearney, who has a 13-year-old daughter, says she thinks parents are dramatising the situation, as anything that might be perceived by adults as inappropriate would go over a child’s head. “My daughter has been collecting LOL dolls since she was 8 and she has never mentioned anything like that to me, because it would not be on her radar,” says Val.
The last, even stranger side to the debacle is the fact that the new anti-LOL-doll videos that have been going viral this week have been aided by the use of increasingly prevalent hashtags, such as #SaveTheChildren and #SaveOurChildren. As The New York Times has reported, those hashtags have been co-opted recently by US-based conspiracy theorists who claim to be exposing evidence of global sex trafficking, with a sensationalist anti-Democrat political agenda.
If not us, then who?
For Jessica Smith, Helly and the many other UAE-based mums who have been raising awareness of the LOL dolls controversy across social media, this is only the start of a much longer road.
Jessica says: “We need to encourage our children to grow up with a sense of body confidence and body awareness. And we do that by not shaming them, by not overexposing them to sexualised messages, and by allowing them to be children.”
Jessica says that parents should also try to be more conscious of what their children are being exposed to, whether it's toys or other media: “Sit down and watch the movies with them, sit down and watch the cartoons with them, and make sure that you know what they are seeing.”
And to the parents who say that the situation is being blown up out of proportion, Jessica has this message: “I want people to take a step back for a second and realise that we need to protect our children’s innocence. Their pure hearts, their pure minds. And by just brushing it off, saying it’s not that big of a deal, we’re potentially putting them in harm’s way.
“A lot of people are saying you’re overthinking this and you shouldn’t get caught up in it. But we have to be caught up in it. Because if we, the parents, are not - who else is going to be?”