Can Barbie Code Her Way Into Millennial Hearts?

Barbie’s playmates of days past are now choosy Millennial moms, and nostalgic loyalty just isn’t cutting it. The 57-year-old fashion doll, with her pale, blond image and pink-plastered lifestyle, doesn’t fit in a progressive landscape where positive body image, ethnic diversity and gender-neutrality have become increasingly valued. Will the brand’s recent overhaul be enough to keep Millennials on board?

GameDev_Barbie2Last week, Mattel — the brand behind Barbie — released its much-anticipated “Game Developer Barbie.” The fashion doll is the latest in the line of career-oriented Barbies intended to send the message “You Can Be Anything” to young girls. Featured prominently on the Barbie website is a quote by the doll’s creator, Ruth Handler: “My whole philosophy of Barbie was that, through the doll, the girl could be anything she wanted to be. Barbie always represented the fact that a woman has choices.” 

This philosophy hasn’t always been so apparent. Mattel has faced continuous criticism aimed at Barbie’s ridiculously proportioned body, ethnocentric looks, and even sexist messages.  The brand has suffered severe blunders, including the predecessor to Game Developer Barbie: Computer Engineer Barbie, who, according to Mattel’s book “Barbie: I can be a computer engineer,” relies on the boys to fix her mistakes and actually make her ideas (designed on a pink laptop of course) come to life.

But it looks like Mattel finally got the message. Last year, after a change in management,
the company gave Barbie a much-needed makeover, adding a variety of skin tones, eye colors, and hair types. This year, the company released three additional body types —curvy, tall and petite — a move that received widespread and positive feedback. Mattel’s Tania Missad, the director of global brand insights, confirmed that Millennial preferences motivated the move: “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.”

And the sales back it up. Barbie has been in consistent decline for the
past several years, until these changes boosted holiday sales back up to levels not seen since 2012.  This year’s first-quarter sales brought more bad news, however, with Barbie sales decreasing globally by three percent. While Barbie is worth $476 million today, at her peak value in 1997, that number was about $2.7 billion in today’s dollars.

The Game Developer Barbie may be helping to correct the line’s course. The laptop thankfully isn’t pink, and her outfit — comprised of a striped sweater, jeans, and a green military-style jacket seems appropriate, maybe even savvy. She also appears far more competent than her pink computer-carrying counterpart; the back of the package indicates that her role includes realistic components such as “storytelling, art & graphic design, audio design, & computer programming.” She’s available in two different skin tones.

While undeniably positive, these changes are not-so-fashionably late in arriving.  That begs the question: is it too little, too late?

Barbie just isn’t the popular girl anymore, or at least compared to her 1990’s glory, when 95% of American girls age 3-11 owned a Barbie, according to a Mattel executive. Today, those girls are between age 21 and 39, and Barbie products only account for around 16% of Mattel’s total sales. It remains to be seen if Barbie’s nostalgic draw and progressive rebranding will be enough to prevent her from falling out with the consumer crowd.

The actual benefits of career-oriented barbies are also controversial. A 2014 study at Oregon State University discovered that girls who played with Barbies, even ones dressed as doctors, saw girls’ career options as more limited than those available to boys, compared with those who played with a Mrs. Potato head toy. Researchers wonder if the doll herself, with her fashionable and sexualized image, stifles girls’ empowerment. The experiment was conducted pre-Barbie’s makeover, but the implications are worrisome.

So will Barbies continue migrating to attics? Or will new additions like the Game Developer Barbie actually deliver on an empowering message, and successfully reprogram the brand’s trajectory?

The answer remains unknown, but one thing is clear: millennial messages aren’t done reforming the toy industry.

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