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A Global Icon Named Barbie

Businesswoman Ruth Handler, on holiday in Europe with her children Kenneth and Barbara, discovered an adult-figured German toy doll called Bild Lilli that was based on a popular comic strip character by Reinhard Beuthin for the Bild newspaper.

Ruth was inspired by the idea of an adult-bodied doll to show young girls that women have choices and that they could become anything they wanted to be. With the help of her husband Elliot, a co-founder of the Mattel Toy Company and engineer Jack Ryan, Ruth designed her own version of the Lilli doll.

Teenage fashion model Barbara Millicent Roberts, Barbie for short, made her debut at the American International Toy Fair in New York on March 9,1959.

Copyright Infringement

Mattel predictably were sued for a “direct takeoff and copy” of Greiner and Hausser’s patented Bild-Lilli character and doll. The matter however, was eventually amicably settled out of court in 1964.

Adult Collectors

Mattel estimates that there are well over 100,000 avid Barbie collectors. Not surprisingly ninety percent are women, but what is surpring is that their average age is 40, and that each collector purchases more than twenty Barbie dolls every year.

Consequenly, Mattel created a wide range of Barbie dolls aimed specifically at collectors that included versions of characters from movies such as Star Trek.

Legacy and Influence Pros and Cons

Barbie’s evolutionary progression to iconic status has been controversial and a negatively perceived influence labeled as the ‘Barbie Syndrome’ has been a much debated topic for decades.

This is a term that has been used to depict the desire to have a physical appearance and lifestyle representative of the Barbie doll. It is most often associated with pre-teenage and adolescent females but is applicable to any age group.

A person with ‘Barbie Syndrome’ attempts to emulate the doll’s physical appearance, even though the doll has unattainable body proportions.This syndrome is seen as a form of body dysmorphic disorder and results in various eating disorders as well as an obsession with cosmetic surgery.

The Economist magazine on the other hand, views Barbie dolls as a positive and important influence on the development of children’s imagination:

“From her early days as a teenage fashion model, Barbie has appeared as an astronaut, surgeon, Olympic athlete, downhill skier, aerobics instructor, TV news reporter, vet, rock star, doctor, army officer, air force pilot, rap musician, baseball player, scuba diver, lifeguard, fire-fighter, engineer, dentist, and many more”.

“When Barbie first burst into the toy shops, just as the 1960s were breaking, the doll market consisted mostly of babies, designed for girls to cradle, rock and feed. By creating a doll with adult features, Mattel enabled girls to become anything they want”.

Brand Franchise

Mattel has progressively developed a comprehensive brand franchise of Barbie products that not only include a range of dolls with their clothes and accessory options, but also a large range of Barbie branded goods such as books, apparel, cosmetics, video games and a serires of animated films.

Keeping Up With The Times

Barbie has constantly been reinvented, changing her clothes to keep up with the latest fashions and adapting her image in response to wider social and cultural changes.

The Fashionista range of Barbie dolls offer seven different skin tones, fourteen different hairstyles and a variety of facial feature characteristics representative of other races. Also on offer is an expanded range of shoe choices.

Furthermore, the increasing consumer pressure on brands to display a social conscience, and to use their media reach and influence to address social, political and environmental problems was acknowledged by Mattel and addressed going forward in their advertising communication.

1. Barbie, Imagine The Possibilities

Advertising Agency: BBDO, San Francisco, USA

Directed by Karen Cunningham, the commercial motivated 400,000 shares within 48 hours of its release and in the following weeks the commercial gained millions of additional viewers.

It seems that the aim to encourage parents to reappraise the role Barbie can play in a child’s life has certainly succeeded.

2. Barbie, The Dream Gap Project

Advertising Agency: BBDO, San Francisco, USA

Directed by Karen Cunningham this commercial to commemorate the International Day of The Girl Child on 11 October highlights the ‘The Dream Gap’ that young girls experience in realising their full potential.

One notable comment in the commercial is the insightful; “We are three times less likely to be given a science-related toy.

Lisa McKnight, general manager and svp of Barbie explains what the goal of The Dream Gap Project is; “To leverage Barbie’s global platforms to educate society on gender biases and inspire all supporters of girls to join us as we can’t do this alone”.

An Entrepreneur and GoldieBlox

GoldieBlox is an interactive toy company for girls, based in Oakland, California, USA and launched in 2012.

Founder Debbie Sterling is a Stanford engineering graduate. Her amazement by the lack of women in her program prompted a two-year study of early child development. She found that girls begin to lose interest in math and science as young as age 8 and decided that a possible solution could be to launch an interactive book series accompanied by a construction kit.

The resultant story enterprise of Goldie, a girl inventor who loves to build things with a storybook paired with a construction kit, proved to be an inspirational marketing and communication success.

3. GoldieBlox, Princess Machine

The idea for the commercial was conceived in-house and directed and filmed by the Academy production company involving a Rube Goldberg inspired chain-reaction construction designed and built by Brett Doar.

The commercial motivated over 8 million views in 4 days.

4. GoldieBlox, Action Hero Ruby Rails

Debbie Stirling insightfully reminds us in this commercial that the most iconic action heroes in popular culture are usually depicted as men with the power to rescue girls portrayed as ‘damsels in distress’.

Her action hero Ruby Rain doll challenges that stereotype by inspiring girls to imagine themselves as the stars of a story and not merely a weaker sex or helpless victim reliant on the help of male superiority.

Ruby Rails is an African-American styled action hero doll that is marketed with a laptop for coding and an instruction kit and video for constructing a parachute using basic engineering principles.

5. GoldieBlox, How To Build Ruby’s Parachute

The video is a carefully crafted, step-by-step guide on how to use the supplied Ruby Rails assembly kit to construct a very effective and functional little parachute.

6. Audi, Ever After

Advertising Agency: Proximity, Barcelona, Spain

Animation Studio: post23, Barcelona, Spain

Michèle Mouton, an Audi driver, in 1981 at the age of 30, became the first woman to win a World Rally Championship.

She recalled that because she was the youngest contestant, the only woman taking part and it was her first participation in the World Rally Championship, nobody expected her to win.

Audi Spain last year paid tribute to her with a live action and animated short film by Film Director Fernando Trullois and Animation Director Jordi García.

The insightful message of the commercial is about the influence of gender stereotypes in the choices parents make in selecting Christmas gifts for their daughters.

The story features an action doll inspired heroine in a fairy tale with a twist. Michèle described it as the story of her life. The short film appeared on Audi Spain’s YouTube channel, Facebook, Twitter Instagram, Movistar and in over 90 Spanish cinemas.