In a 1994 episode of The Simpsons, Lisa is disheartened to find her talking Malibu Stacy doll has nothing of substance to say: Instead, she chirps, "I wish they taught shopping in school," and "Don't ask me, I'm just a girl!" But when the fictional eight-year-old tries designing her own feminist doll – which says, "Trust in yourself and you can achieve anything" – it doesn't sell.
But in the more than 20 years since that episode aired, times have changed. And the target of Malibu Stacy's satire – Barbie – has found herself struggling to keep up. Barbie's unrealistic body and restrictive beauty standards have always been a topic of debate, but in recent years especially, her sales were flagging.
"The headlines were horrible. The brand was losing relevance with our core consumer, and the business was plummeting," Lisa McKnight, senior vice-president and global brand manager for Barbie at Mattel Inc., said during a recent visit to Toronto. Barbie's image "was very one-dimensional and materialistic."
Now, Barbie is beginning to reverse sales declines by growing up. In 2015, Mattel released an ad campaign that tried to position the doll as a vehicle for girls' empowerment – helping them to envision themselves as teachers, coaches, businesswomen and more. But the slogan, "You Can Be Anything," went only so far when Barbie was quite literally stuck in her old mould. Whether presidential candidate, astronaut or entrepreneur, she was impossibly slim, her facial features were homogenous and she remained congenitally incompatible with flat shoes.
Then last year, the company introduced new body types – including a "curvy" Barbie – and new skin tones, face designs, eye colours and hairstyles.
In the satirical version of events, such progress wouldn't sell. But there has been an impact.
"It's good for business, for sure," Ms. McKnight said in an interview. "Barbie has always been just a complex brand. She's a lightning rod for conversation. So it's complex. We need to know when to address issues. … I do think it's pretty undeniable today that Barbie is inclusive, diverse. She's a role model."
That's important, because the parents who buy toys for their children have become increasingly aware of the impact of gendered toy marketing on how kids see themselves. A 2006 study found that "very young girls experience heightened body dissatisfaction after exposure to Barbie doll images." And it's not just about her body: Many younger parents are trying to raise their children with a more open understanding of gender roles, and greater representations of diversity.
In 2016, Barbie's sales rose for the first time after years of decline. While that cannot be entirely attributed to marketing – Mattel does not report how big a business the more diverse "Fashionista" line is, making it impossible to know the sales impact of the new skin tones and body types – the company does believe changing perceptions of the brand have been key to its revitalization.
That's especially true in as diverse a country as Canada, where Barbie sales gains have outpaced global growth.
"Consumers have embraced them," said Riza Javellina, director of marketing for Mattel Canada, who said sales grew by double digits here last year.
Overall sales in the toy industry in Canada grew 6 per cent last year, according to market researcher NPD Group, while sales of the Barbie brand have outpaced that. Barbie is currently the No. 1 fashion doll brand in Canada.
"One in five [in the Canadian population] are visible minorities, and … by 2031, that will increase to one-third," said Michelle Liem, Canada toy analyst with NPD. For consumers, representation of that diversity matters. "It's important for manufacturers who are in the Canadian market to really understand that, and start thinking about the product mix, their marketing campaigns and how they can speak to everyone."
That goes for boys, too. In 2015, fashion line Moschino teamed up with Mattel to make a special-edition Barbie. Creative director Jeremy Scott created a parody of eighties-style Barbie ads that included a little boy styled to look like him playing with the doll, and calling her "so fierce." But despite headlines that Barbie was opening up to boys, Mattel called it a "fauxmercial," and did not put the video on its own website or YouTube channel.
But Ms. McKnight believes there is room for that to change. As the backlash against gendered marketing to children has increased, Barbie could open up more to boys.
"We have definitely started to be more conscious about introducing boys in advertising," she said. "… If you want to discuss transgender, that's really for a girl or boy to decide when they're playing with the dolls. They can make up whatever back story they want for the dolls. … We are looking at ways in to an even broader audience."
The latest effort has been to feature dads in commercials – a growing trend as the stereotypical doofus man-child has begun to fade in advertising. This year, its big marketing campaign is "Dads who play Barbie," featuring men taking an active role in spending time with their daughters. It asked people to submit their own videos of dads playing with the dolls, and one-quarter of the submissions came from Canada.
"We know that moms influence, and are the main purchasers. But we also appreciate that there's so much co-parenting going on," Ms. McKnight said. "We are always trying to evolve."
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