One ad campaign won’t — and shouldn’t — wipe out the unhealthy stereotypes that the Barbie doll line has contributed to over the years. But Mattel’s recently launched rebranding of the toy, originally introduced in 1959 as a “17 year old teen-age fashion model,” is a first: It’s the first time the company has had any measure of success changes the hearts and minds of “anti-Barbie” progressives.
Of course it’s the parents, not the children, that Mattel is trying to reach with its new campaign that attempts to reverse the Barbie sales slide. Quite a few publications have written excellent pieces on the rebranding effort; this column on the Forbes site, by Ideasicle CEO Will Burns sums it up nicely:
What is brilliant about this highly entertaining film is that Mattel successfully reframes how we think about Barbie Dolls. That Barbie Dolls are not about what the doll looks like, but about how a child looks at the dolls.
In other words, Barbie Dolls are a means, not an end. When we see a child playing with a Barbie Doll it’s not a buxom babe projecting negative influence onto the child. It’s imagination at work, a blank slate, a world of possibilities shaped like a doll.
As Adweek noted, while Barbie faces competition from other brands, its biggest challenge has never been, say, American Girl, but rather Barbie herself — or, put another way, our perceptions of Barbie, with her out-of-proportion figure and her Valley Girl attitude.
After all, it’s not like Barbie hasn’t had her share of careers — anywhere between 130 and 150 of them, depending on your source. She’s dabbled in everything: a business executive, a fast-food cashier, a doctor, an astronaut, a rapper.
Perhaps that’s been Barbie’s biggest shortcoming. The toy has been created and marketed with the kind of wardrobe and props that reasonably lead parents to see a storyline that focuses on entourage and accessories and, yes, that body more than on where she’s going with that career as an astronaut or doctor. The toy strikes moms and dads more as signaling the message that what’s most important is that you do something while dressed to the nines — and in high heels for sure.
So surprisingly, some adults are not persuaded by the new campaign, noting that until Barbie’s many accessories and lifestyle props change dramatically, “Barbie will still portray an airhead, not a professional woman of the 21st century.”
But I’m willing to give Mattel a chance here, if this ad campaign is the beginning of something new. If this toy can inspire young girls to dream big and think about themselves as leaders — as the young girls in this ad do — good for Mattel. (FYI, the surprised yet supportive adults in the video are not actors, but rather real people whose reactions were caught on hidden cameras when young girls appear as their veterinarian, coach, corporate executive and professor.)
The whole controversy also got me thinking about what the children themselves think when they play with Barbies. That’s what really counts.
As a child of the 1960s, I played with my share of Barbies — although mine had a homemade wardrobe of clothes sown by my great-grandmother. The complaint I remember from my own mom was that Barbie’s clothes were too expensive for our cornbread-and-beans budget. Of course, my mom was still trapped in that ’50s-’60s world of believing her self worth was tied to the size of her waistline, so Barbie’s physique wasn’t an issue.
I mostly escaped the Barbie wars as an adult because I had boys, not girls.My oldest son at one point owned an oversized Madeline doll, but Barbie was not a topic in our house. I did support a close friend as she battled with her three daughters about Barbie — and other similar stereotypical “girlie” things — throughout their growing up years.
Just as my many attempts to keep toy guns out of my young sons’ hands proved so naive after I saw the Call of Duty video games they were playing in high school and college, my friend’s youngest daughter chose to live in a pink, pink and more pink world — my goodness, she was even a CHEERLEADER. So much for control.
Come to think of it, given all the more controversial messages our young people are bombarded with at such an early age these days, Barbie is probably not near the top of the list of concerns. But good for Mattel to try harder to help her outgrow her bimbo image. Now if they can just do something about that waistline.