Cultural Appropriation or Appreciation?

Report by Bobb Drake.

It’s not easy being a culture vulture, a self-serving individual or corporation looking to steal and profit from the cultures of disenfranchised ethnicities and indigenous peoples. But everyone has to make a living, right? And preferably a good one. A very good one. 

Why, the world is your apple orchard, and there are so many amazingly delicious, juicy red apples ripe for the picking—unique cultures with long and storied histories, sacred traditions and designs developed over millennia. It’s all too tempting to grab one and take a bite.

Admittedly, this is probably not you. Your intentions are probably good. You appreciate the rare and unique among the world’s cultures and what they have to offer. You want to honor them and be inclusive of them in your business, whatever business you might be in. 

Yet, perceptions trump intentions, and companies run a great risk of being perceived by the general public as self-serving, profiteering cultural appropriators, carelessly and openly stealing from relatively vulnerable cultures—all in the name of the almighty dollar.

So how do you do it right? How do you approach cross-cultural inspiration and borrowing with honor and integrity, with respect and recognition, and ensure both the affected culture and the general public know that you did your due diligence and truly care?

It’s not easy. But it’s possible. Good intentions are not enough. Nor is being knowledgeable and appreciative of the culture who has inspired you so.

Something more is needed: cultural outreach and collaboration; documentation and public awareness.

Let’s take a look at a timely example in honor of the upcoming Mexican holiday Día de Muertos, the Day of the Dead, which is also popular in parts of the US given the large populations of Americans with Mexican ancestry. As a testament to the holiday’s cultural significance, it is worth noting that it is included in the UNESCO Lists of Intangible Cultural Heritage.

Día de Muertos Barbie

Recently, Mattel released a Día de Muertos Barbie Doll. In response, there was a smattering of articles and tweets accusing the company of culturally appropriating the pre-Columbian Mexican holiday and profiting financially from a hot trend without care or concern about the Mexican culture and its long indigenous history.

“Cultural appropriation at its worst!” one tweet said. Another read: “Cultural Appropriation Barbie is coming out soon. Don’t worry! No proceeds will go to indigenous people that sell this kind of thing much cheaper. For only $75 you can help a multi-million dollar corporation get richer!”

Others complained about the Barbie’s authenticity, saying the doll’s skin should have been darker to represent the indigenous Mexican whose long tradition the holiday belongs to. Some suggested the dress looked too Spanish and didn’t represent the culture correctly.


Mattel’s Día de Muertos Barbie: appropriate or appropriated?

And yet the collector’s edition doll, priced at $75, sold out very quickly and as of October 23 is currently out of stock according to Mattel’s website.

What did Mattel do right and what more could they have done to head off the accusations and the risk of public backlash?

What did Mattel do right?

Mattel included a small, yet meaningful blurb about the holiday on their website stating that the doll was intended to honor the traditions and symbols associated with the day.

Cultural Appropriation or Appreciation-product-featur

Día de Muertos Barbie product features shown on Mattel’s website

They even included an additional link on the doll’s product page leading to a small writeup about the holiday, written in English and Spanish.

“[…] Día de Muertos takes place on November 1st and 2nd, coinciding with the observances of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. This colorful and lively holiday is filled with music, food, sweets, offerings, and flowers. While the Día de Muertos Barbie® Doll takes inspiration from the modern version of this celebration, the tradition has roots that go back thousands of years. […]”

These are important, yet small steps in the public outreach and risk mitigation process, demonstrating honor, recognition and knowledge of the represented cultural elements and their significance. 

One even more critical step, however, would be to collaborate with the cultural community in the design development and production. There is no mention of whether Mattel did this the doll’s webpage. Yet, it appears that they did.

According to an article in the New York Times, Día de Muertos Barbie: Respectful Tribute, or ‘Obviously Cultural Appropriation’?, Javier Meabe, the designer who worked with Mattel to create the doll, is Mexican-American and he consulted with the right people in Mexico to ensure that every detail was respective of the indigenous culture. He even based the dress off dresses his mother wore.

According to best practices in product culturalization, Mattel did almost all that they could do, yet not quite.

What more could Mattel have done?

They might have created videos and articles documenting their collaboration with experts on the Día de Muertos in the indigenous Mexican culture, showing the interaction between Mattel’s Barbie designer and indigenous consultants. Most importantly they might have included this footage and documentation on the doll’s webpage and in press kits, public awareness and social media campaigns leading up to the release of the product. 

In short, they should have created positive excitement about Mattel’s cultural efforts and sensitivities.  

They might also have given back to associations that help Mexicans or Mexican-American.

Even though this product seems not to have created a lasting backlash of cultural appropriation, Mattel could have fended off many of the perceptions and reinforced their efforts by taking and demonstrating these additional steps in their product development and launch.

Cultivating success

The next time you find yourself taking inspiration from another culture for your business, be sure to approach the creative process in a collaborative, informed and respectful manner by working closely with experts from within the relevant cultural community and to inform the public of your diligent efforts.

Global companies need a partner like Nimdzi Insights to help align their intentions with perceptions when dealing with cross-cultural inspirations and borrowings, their ramifications, and risk mitigating strategies.


This report was researched and written by Nimdzi's Director of Geocultural Research, Bobb Drake. If you wish to learn more about this topic, feel free to reach out to Bobb at [email protected].

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