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New Barbie doll body shapes of petite, tall and curvy are seen with the traditional Barbie in a photo released by Mattel on January 28, 2016. (HANDOUT/REUTERS)
New Barbie doll body shapes of petite, tall and curvy are seen with the traditional Barbie in a photo released by Mattel on January 28, 2016. (HANDOUT/REUTERS)

marketing

Barbie’s shape shifts with the times Add to ...

Barbie’s got a booty.

After decades of selling a doll for girls that has become vilified for promoting superskinny bodies, blonde hair and white skin as a vision of female perfection, Mattel this week unveiled three new versions of Barbie: “tall,” “petite” and “curvy.” (By “curvy,” Mattel means she has a rear end and stomach that stick out very slightly.)

In Canada, the new dolls will begin to hit store shelves at major retailers such as Toys “R” Us and Wal-Mart in late February or early March, and Mattel is promoting presales of the dolls starting now at Mattelshop.com.

“It’s a big company and a 57-year-old brand. It took us a while to figure out what is the best way to keep up with the times, while staying true to what Barbie is about,” said Riza Javellana, director of marketing at Mattel Canada Inc. “Slowly, we are evolving. Now is the time. It hasn’t come before, but change takes time.”

Barbie is more than a doll. She is shorthand for the burden of expectations that are thrust upon women starting in childhood.

The blonde doll – with her rictus feet fit only for high heels; her impossible waist that is half the size of her hips; and a neck so skinny, it wouldn’t hold up her head in real life – is a caricature of womanhood. Famously, in the days before awareness of the dangers of eating disorders, one model of the doll came with a book of dieting tips that included the advice, “Don’t eat.”

But recently, the conversation about gendered toys has spread, fuelled by social media that give concerned parents a way to communicate with each other. Increasingly, they’ve also been talking back to marketers who make toys that contribute to shaping their children’s world view.

Recently, for example, Hasbro Inc. announced it would make changes to its Monopoly: Star Wars game after consumers objected that character Rey – the protagonist of the new movie – was left out of it.

Toy companies are being held to account.

“The world has definitely changed. Consumers now have a louder voice,” Ms. Javellana said. “And millennials are more loyal to brands that lead with purpose. It was time to remind those moms that Barbie can inspire girls.”

That’s the marketing message that Mattel has been pushing, anyway. In October, it launched an ad campaign that suggested girls who play with Barbies are empowered and confident, because they use the doll to imagine themselves as professors, veterinarians, high-powered business executives and coaches.

Creating a different image for Barbie is crucial for the brand’s survival: Not only is the doll facing more competition from other toys such as Disney Princess dolls, but her relevance has been slipping. Globally, sales have also been slipping: by 16 per cent in 2014; 6 per cent the year before.

Ms. Javellana would not disclose Canadian sales figures, but said the trends have been similar here, with sales particularly softening in the last three years. Partly because of the new campaign, she said, Barbie had a strong holiday season the company hopes is a sign they’re on the right track.

More than a year ago, Mattel formed a “global advisory council” to advise the Barbie brand on how to stay relevant. It includes Canadian CEO of YummyMummyClub.ca, Erica Ehm; and others such as: ballet dancer Misty Copeland; Kimberly Bryant, the founder of technology education organization Black Girls Code; and Julie Ann Crommett, program manager for computer science education in media at Google.

Last year, the brand introduced more new hairstyles, hair colours, eye colours and skin tones. This year, it focused on body types.

“Definitely, diversity is a key theme for us,” Ms. Javellana said.

With this launch, Barbie now has 33 new dolls with 30 hair colours, 24 hairstyles, 22 eye colours, 14 face sculpts, seven skin tones and four body types.

Shoppers won’t see all of these options right away: It will take time to roll out the line to retailers, and availability may depend on considerations such as shelf space.

“It doesn’t reflect everybody, but we feel that by introducing more variety … it’s a better reflection of the world,” she said.

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