The global downturn has sparked some surprising consumer trends, from recessionista chic to discounts at brothels. But a new doll on the market must take the award for most counter-intuitive marketing: she is homeless, and costs $95.

In a tale that may ring true for some victims of the recession but which has caused controversy in the United States, the book that accompanies Mattel’s “Gwen Thompson” doll describes how her father lost his job and left the family, forcing Gwen and her mother to sleep in their car after they were evicted.

“I always thought homelessness happened to other people. Never to me,” Gwen’s mother says in the storybook.

“At first, my daughter and I slept in our car. I’d park so that we’d wake up near a wayside rest area or restaurant – somewhere where we could use the sink for washing up – and then I’d go to work and pretend that life was just as it had always been.”

At almost $100 – Gwen’s hairbrush costs an additional $7, or owners can get her hair done at the salon for $20 – the doll is hardly a bargain. Gwen’s friend Chrissa has accessories including a $25 pet llama and a $78 craft studio.

Indeed, critics have accused American Girl, part of the toy giant Mattel, of glamorising homelessness at a time when the US rate of unemployment is close to 10 per cent.

“It’s legitimate to criticise this luxury doll. Homeless people have to deal every day with the fact that they can’t afford food or an apartment, let alone a fancy toy,” said Steve Berg, vice-president of The National Alliance to End Homelessness.

“But it’s good if people are talking about homelessness and the fact that there are children who do have to sleep in cars.”

The alliance has estimated that 1m Americans will have no place to live as a result of the recession.

American Girl says the doll is meant to open girls’ eyes to life’s harsher realities: “Our singular goal with these stories is to help girls find their inner star by becoming kind, compassionate and loving people who make a positive and meaningful difference in the world around them,” it said in a statement.

None of the proceeds from sales of the Gwen doll are being donated to help the homeless, but the company says it has given almost $500,000 since 2006 to HomeAid, a national group that tries to help the homeless find housing.

Despite the controversy, the doll has its fans. “Gwen is sooo cute,” a customer called Sami wrote on the American Girl website. “Very realistic.”

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