Barbie is to receive a dramatic makeover in 2016, toy company Mattel has revealed, as a new range includes three optional body shapes – petite, tall and curvy – as well as seven different skin tones and 24 hair styles.
Marking a radical change from the blonde, blue-eyed appearance and implausible proportions of previous models, the updated dolls are intended to better reflect the diversity of the product’s audience and appeal to the shifting expectations of what Mattel called “millennial moms”.
“We were seeing that Millennials are driven by social justice and attracted to brands with purpose and values, and they didn’t see Barbie in this category,” Tania Missad, Mattel’s director of global brand insights, told theTelegraph.
Mattel will be hoping its new-look range reinvigorates demand for Barbie, which has struggled against criticism of the doll’s example for young girls and seen newer models, such as Frozen’s Snow Glow Elsa, overtake it in the toy charts. In October Mattel announced a 14% global drop in Barbie sales, the eighth consecutive quarter in which numbers fell.
Ahead of Mattel’s announcement, the Telegraph’s Anna Hart took an exclusive look inside the Barbie headquarters, read her story below.
Behind the makeover: Barbie gets real(ish)
Photo: Emily Berl
We’re seated in a Pantone 219-pink-walled boardroom at Mattel HQ in a retail park in El Segundo, Los Angeles. Two wall-mounted clocks relay the time in LA and Hong Kong, and posters of Barbie campaigns and fashion tie-ins adorn the walls: Barbie’s recent collaboration with Moschino, the 2014 Karl Lagerfeld Barbie (currently fetching $4,000 on eBay after originally retailing on Net-a-Porter for $200), plus doting portraits of Barbie in various guises, from astronaut to presidential candidate. But all eyes are on a 12in stand on the boardroom table, draped with a candy-pink veil.
What I and four other journalists are about to witness is the culmination of a highly secretive 18-month operation codenamed Project Dawn: the design and manufacture of 33 new Barbie dolls that mark a radical departure from the blonde-haired, blue-eyed, improbably-proportioned doll we know and love – or hate. Or love to hate. Kim Culmone, vice president of design for Barbie, and senior design director Robert Best admit that it has been tough concealing Barbie’s new look from their friends and colleagues at Mattel, transporting prototype dolls around the building in sealed containers.
Blonde bombshell Barbie is so much more than a pretty face. She’s a multimillion-dollar empire; over a billion of the dolls have been sold worldwide in more than 150 countries, and Mattel estimates that three Barbies are sold every second. She’s a cultural icon, painted by Andy Warhol in 1986 (Barbie, Portrait of BillyBoy*), starring in the Toy Story movies, and inspiring collaborations with fashion designers from Oscar de la Renta (1984) to Christian Dior (1995) to Diane von Furstenberg (2006).
And as a heritage toy brand, Barbie is perhaps the most universally recognised 11.5in of plastic ever assembled, with Mattel claiming 98 per cent brand recognition globally. ‘Right now when you say “Barbie” to someone, a very clear image of a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, slim doll comes to mind,’ says Culmone. ‘In a few years, this will no longer be the case. We’re exploding a system that’s been in place for 56 years and a heritage that’s been passed down from generation to generation.’ Tampering with this winning formula was an exercise that could only be undertaken behind locked doors.
Photo: Emily Berl
As the satin veil is whipped off, there’s a gasp in the room. It’s a line-up of black Barbies, tanned Barbies, white Barbies: seven different skintones in total. There is afro hair, curly red hair, tousled blue hair and jet-black straight hair; 30 colours and 24 styles and textures. There are blue eyes, green eyes, brown eyes. Plus there are three new body shapes or ‘archetypes’: a smaller doll, a taller doll, and the one everyone reaches for first – a Barbie with solid thighs, a waist able to accommodate vital internal organs and biceps meaty enough to beat Ken at arm-wrestling.
I pick up bigger Barbie by her gratifyingly sturdy waist and surreptitiously nudge up her skirt. Barbie has had her most radical makeover ever – and I can exclusively report that the thigh-gap is officially gone.
Nobody at Mattel would argue with the fact that at the ripe old age of 56, Barbie needed to have some work done. She kept a pink-lipsticked smile plastered on her plastic face, her hair remained immaculate, and stress never took its toll on her skin, but in recent years, Barbie had let herself go. In 2014 she was unceremoniously ousted from the top-selling girls’ toy spot (by Frozen’s Queen Elsa) for the first time in over a decade, and although she remains the market leader in the fashion dolls category, sales are down for the third consecutive year.
But Barbie – charmed as her life of pink Corvettes, designer garb and plastic mansions may appear – is no stranger to adversity, and comes from humble beginnings. Mattel Creations was founded in 1945 by Elliot and Ruth Handler, from the garage of their family home in California. The Handlers successfully tapped into a thriving toy market buoyed up by the baby boom of the 1950s, the newfound prosperity of the middle classes, and the rapid rise of consumerism, advertising and manufacturing.
As the story goes, inspiration for Barbie struck as Ruth watched her daughter Barbara and her friends playing with paper dolls. The girls used them to role-play teenage and adult scenarios, such as doctors and nurses, cheerleaders and businesswomen. At the time, the only toy dolls on the market were podgy-faced babies to be bottle-fed and pushed around in a pram.
Photo: Emily Berl
Handler observed that ‘little girls just wanted to be bigger girls’, and realised that playing out adult lifestyles and professions was a natural way for children to form aspirations about their future. ‘My whole philosophy of Barbie was that through the doll, the little girl could be anything she wanted to be,’ said Handler, who died in 2002. ‘Barbie always represented the fact that a woman has choices.’
Barbie also represented a lucrative opportunity to fill a gap in the market. On holiday in Europe, Handler spotted a 12in German doll named Bild Lilli, who was based on a popular satirical cartoon character in Bild-Zeitung newspaper. She had long legs, a slender waist, pert breasts, full make-up and a sideways, sultry glance. Handler carted three Lillis back to California, unaware that the doll was marketed not to children, but to adult men as a novelty gift.
Regardless, Lilli (with a few nips and tucks, and minus her nipples) was the prototype for Handler’s new doll, and after overcoming the resistance of manufacturers (who considered it too fiddly and expensive for the mass market), retailers (who balked at breasts on a children’s toy) and the sales team (who insisted that no mother would buy such an adult-looking toy for their little girl), ‘Barbie Teen-Age Fashion Model’ doll was launched on March 9, 1959, at the American International Toy Fair in New York. Barbie – full name Barbara Millicent Roberts – came in blonde and brunette versions, clad in a fabulous zebra-print one-piece swimsuit and accessorised with cat’s-eye sunglasses.
Buyers were sceptical, placing small orders for this precocious new doll. But Ruth Handler’s instincts paid off when little girls got their first glimpse of Barbie on the shelves. By Christmas 1959, more than 350,000 Barbie dolls had been sold. Mattel Creations rapidly expanded to cope with demand, and by 1965 it was among the top 500 companies in America.
In a shrewd merchandising move, by making fashion part of Barbie’s DNA, Ruth Handler ensured that little girls would perpetually desire newer and more up-to-date Barbies – not to mention the high-profit-margin accessories and clothes.
The first dolls were manufactured in Japan, with their clothes – by fashion designer Charlotte Johnson – hand-stitched by Japanese homeworkers. Today a team of eight face designers and four hair designers produces up to 30 new prototype dolls a week, each taking anything from a day to six weeks to perfect. Some of the design team have a background in engineering or industrial design, others in fine art or graphic design. Barbie also has a team of designers expanding her vast wardrobe, and stylists to make sure she looks perfectly on-trend for ad campaigns and shoots. ‘Her fashions and hair reflect current trends so accurately that it’s easy to identify a doll as from the early 1960s or late 1970s,’ says Culmone. ‘Barbie is a constant reflection of the times.’
As well as being a roaring success, Barbie’s personal life was rosy. She began an on-off relationship with the hunky himbo Ken Carson in 1961. A news release from Mattel in February 2004 announced that Barbie and Ken had split up (and an Australian surfer doll named Blaine hit the shelves to keep her company) but in February 2006 they decided to rekindle their relationship following Ken’s makeover.
Barbie has over 40 pets, including cats and dogs, horses, a lion cub, a zebra and a panda. She has been propped up behind the wheel of pink Corvette convertibles, trailers and jeeps; she also holds a pilot’s licence. Her ‘careers’ were ones where women were traditionally unrepresented, including Miss Astronaut Barbie (1965), Doctor Barbie (1987), Paleontologist Barbie (1997) and Nascar [racing driver] Barbie (1998). And her social circle was ever-expanding, with friends including Hispanic Teresa, African-American Christie and Steven (Christie’s boyfriend).
But there have been missteps along the way. ‘Colored Francie’ debuted in 1967, mooted as the first African-American Barbie doll. But critics were swift to point out that she was produced using the existing facial sculpts of the white Francie doll and therefore lacked African-American characteristics beyond a darker skin tone. A year later came Christie, then in 1997 Mattel introduced Share a Smile Becky, a doll in a pink wheelchair. It took Kjersti Johnson, a 17-year-old high-school student in Tacoma, Washington, with cerebral palsy, to point out that the doll would not fit into the elevator of Barbie’s Dream House.
Photo: Emily Berl
During the 1990s, the Barbie backlash gathered momentum, attacking what the doll stood for. ‘Barbie is the woman who has everything, and every year receives more,’ wrote Eric Clark in his book The Real Toy Story: Inside the Ruthless Battle for the Britain’s Youngest Consumers. ‘The plastic princess of capitalism, with her cars, houses, pools and clothes, invites attack as programmer of little consumers.’
In 2003, Saudi Arabia’s Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice outlawed the sale of Barbie dolls, declaring, ‘Jewish Barbie dolls, with their revealing clothes and shameful postures, accessories and tools are a symbol of decadence to the perverted West. Let us beware of her dangers and be careful.’ (In Middle Eastern nations girls play with a doll named Fulla. The same height as Barbie, she has long dark hair and is dressed more demurely: in a black abaya and headscarf for the Saudi market; in more liberal Muslim nations, she wears a white scarf and pastel-coloured clothes.)
By far the loudest chorus of criticism levelled at Barbie is that she promotes an unrealistic body image for young women. A standard Barbie doll is 11.5in tall, equating to 5ft 9in at 1/6 ‘playscale’. Barbie’s vital statistics have been estimated by Yale academics at 36in (bust), 18in (waist) and 33 in (hips). Barbie-bashers gleefully seized on the observation by Finnish researchers in 1994 that Barbie lacked sufficient body fat to menstruate. (In 1997, Barbie’s body archetype was redesigned and she was given a wider waist – although Mattel insisted this was so she could better model 1990s crop-tops and wide-leg trousers.)
The real threat to Barbie’s empire is not Islam, or anti-capitalist campaigners. It’s 21st-century mothers. ‘Around 18 months ago, we realised we had a problem with moms,’ says Evelyn Mazzocco, senior vice president and global brand general manager. ‘They saw her as vapid and lacking depth.’
Specifically, Mattel has a problem with ‘millennial moms’. Tania Missad, director of global brand insights, leads all Mattel’s research on its girl brands. Delving far deeper than sales figures and demographics aggregated from a panel of market research companies, Mattel also analyses social media to eavesdrop on what is being said about Barbie (they know, for example, that 85 per cent of online chatter about Barbie on social media is driven by young adults venting about the brand, not parents) and conducts both formal focus groups and informal play sessions every day of the year, in which psychologists observe behavioural patterns, and product designers scan for ‘dexterity issues’, such as a child fumbling with a new fashion item.
‘We were seeing that Millennials are driven by social justice and attracted to brands with purpose and values, and they didn’t see Barbie in this category,’ says Missad.
Photo: Emily Berl
Compared to Baby Boomers and Generation X parents, ‘Millennial moms’ were more likely to question institutions and harbour anti-consumerist sentiments. ‘Girls still love Barbie,’ says Missad. ‘But moms, and specifically Millennial moms, were having a real crisis about whether they wanted their children to play with Barbie or not.’ Mattel cannot afford to lose Millennial moms. ‘It’s currently a small group, but it’s a growing group,’ says Missad. ‘It’s the future.’
This ‘red flag’ led to an urgent re-evaluation of brand vision and corporate restructuring. ‘We dismantled the commercial advertising and re-engineered our advertising with a mom-directed strategy,’ says president and COO Richard Dickson. ‘Previously we grew our business by making 15-second commercials directed at kids.’ This was replaced with a YouTube ad titled Imagine The Possibilities, which became the most-watched advert on the site in October 2015, and won awards for deftly positioning Barbie as a catalyst for little girls’ career aspirations. One young girl appears in a lecture theatre teaching, one is a paleontologist, another a vet.
But the most powerful weapon in Mattel’s charm offensive targeting Millennial moms is the army of 33 new-generation dolls. With this new breed of Barbie, Mattel has created a doll for children to play with, and adults to talk about. ‘When kids play with Barbie dolls, they don’t get hung up on this,’ says Best. ‘Diversity is a bigger adult conversation.’
And the conversation, in tightly controlled focus groups with mothers and daughters, has been overwhelmingly positive. ‘We’ve had a lot of “Amen”s and “Finally”s from moms,’ says Missad. Naturally, there will be critics who dismiss it as tokenism, or point out that the bigger Barbie is still definitely not fat, and is attractive in the most conventional of ways: big eyes, high cheekbones, flawless skin, taut limbs.
‘There will be people who say we haven’t gone far enough, or people who ask what’s next, question our commitment to this,’ sighs Missad. ‘Barbie is a lightning rod for conversation, and of course there will be a backlash.’
In December Evelyn Mazzoco showed the new Barbies to three key retailers – Target, Walmart and Toys R Us – and the sole note of negativity was that they had only a matter of weeks to prepare stores for Barbie’s metamorphosis (the new dolls will reach the UK in February).
There are significant logistical complexities for retailers, such as shelf space and display units. ‘And just like in real life, not all clothes will fit each doll,’ observes Best. For the first time, Barbie will know what it’s like to be unable to squeeze into her friend’s jeans. ‘But Barbie can handle it. She’s a big girl,’ he says, with a laugh.