Billed as “a shapely teenage fashion model,” Barbie made her first appearance at the American Toy Fair in New York City and soon became a hit. Her abrupt departure from traditional baby-faced dolls, however, drew criticism that has never stopped even though the nature of the complaints has changed.
Mattel did its best to satisfy both the critics and fans of Barbie, reshaping her face early on to give her a softer look and even trying in recent years to make her body more closely match that of an average woman. The doll’s ubiquitous fashion accessories have also changed with the times, although Mattel made sure that there was nothing salacious about Barbie wearing a mini-skirt in the 60s or a tube top in the 80s, despite her popularity in a culture that has become increasingly open about sexuality.
The company also began rolling out Barbie’s supporting cast in the early 60s, starting with Ken. (Mattel should abandon attempts to quell rumors that Ken is gay and Barbie is really in love with G.I. Joe; the speculation helps keep the brand in the public’s mind.) Barbie’s best friend Midge and her little sister Skipper followed soon after, and the subsequent 30-plus years have seen the addition of a black doll named Christie, an “artsy bohemian” named Chelsea, and others.
Critics argue that instead of representing a free-spirited, independent woman, Barbie stands for ideals that only a small percentage of women can hope to achieve. Indeed, the term “Barbie doll” is often used to describe rarities such as Pamela Anderson, whose bodies are unusually perfect or surgically assisted.
The critics, however, have done little to hurt Barbie, who has become not only a cherished plaything of many little girls but also the object of many collections. Mattel caters to the collectors with a series of dolls exclusive to certain retailers. From Wedgewood China Barbie to the Bob Mackie line, high-end renditions of the character are highly-prized by collectors and rare Barbies can go for a lot of money on the second-hand market. There’s even a magazine called Barbie Bazaar that caters to collectors with such articles as “That’s Barbie!” and “Denim on the Red Carpet: The Evolution of Casual Chic,” in addition to the usual price guides and classified ads.
Mattel’s response to feminists include Astronaut Barbie and Doctor Barbie, which debuted in 1986 and 1988, respectively. Day to Night Barbie (1985) reflected the yuppie lifestyle of the 80s, complete with an executive’s outfit for Barbie’s 9-to-5 office job and evening wear for a night on the town. She even came with a small calculator, perfect for crunching the numbers needed for financial reports.
In 1992, the Barbie Liberation Organization became upset when a Talking Barbie included the phrase “Math class is tough.” The group switched her mechanisms with G.I. Joe’s, creating homemade Barbies that yelled “Vengeance is mine!” While the incident was amusing, and it did successfully spread the group’s message, it did little to harm the brand. In fact, Mattel’s strategy in this area is to ignore the critics, as many of them will be unhappy with the doll no matter what the company does. If a mother is truly unhappy with the image Barbie projects, there’s little Mattel can do that it hasn’t done already.
But while the critics have done little damage to the brand, competitors continue to search for ways to cut into Barbie’s market and mind-share. From cheap knock-offs sold in dollar stores to upstarts like MGA Entertainment’s Bratz, which tries to cash in on current American youth culture with a brash image, Barbie faces many threats within the market niche. In response, Mattel created the “My Scene” line, which features similar fashions without the “in your face” attitude.
Brand consultancy Interbrand ranked Barbie 97th with a value of US$ 1.87 billion, down three percent from the year before, in its 2003 Best Global Brands report with BusinessWeek. While a loss of brand worth is never good, Mattel doesn’t need to panic. It has spent more than three decades building a brand that includes not only toys but also videogames, board games, comic books, cartoons, and other spin-offs that constantly keep Barbie in the public eye.
Barbie also embodies a clean-cut image that many moms remember from when they were children, and Mattel continues to keep it that way. After all, it would be hard to imagine a Sponge Barbie Squarepants or a Punk Rock Barbie. As long as Mattel stays the course, this brand should be fine.