Can Mattel Save Barbie with New Body Types?

Mattel announced on 28 January 2016 that it would be adding new body types to its Barbie toy line-up in an effort to address concerns about the negative body image Barbie dolls convey to young girls. Mattel unveiled a new line up of Barbie that will now feature curvy and tall body shapes in a variety of skin tones and hair colours and styles.

In 2014, Barbie saw global sales declines of 9% in US$ fixed exchange rates, one of the steepest declines for the brand since its sales began to slide in 2011. Financial reports from Mattel suggest a similar story for the brand in 2015, and the company has had to take numerous steps to help lift the brand’s sales. The company has made gradual steps to broaden the ethnic diversity of available Barbie dolls to better appeal to the increasingly racially diverse children’s population as well as introducing Hello Barbie, a Wi-Fi enabled interactive talking Barbie doll.

While Mattel introduced these products in the hopes of building interest amongst children, the core problem of the negative perception of Barbie dolls remained. Mattel has attempted to use large scale marketing campaigns to combat the growing negative views of Barbie, such as a 2014 #Unapologetic ad campaign that featured Barbie on the cover of Sports Illustrated. However, these efforts have largely been ineffective against a steady movement amongst parents towards more responsible messaging in toys.

“Barbie’s new shapes also coincide with a progressive cultural shift already underway in stores and the toy aisles. Parents and many health experts have complained that too many dolls, models and even clothing companies conform to an extremely thin, even anorexic, body type and have pressured corporations to offer a broader variety of images and apparel sizes to give girls and boys more confidence in their own body shapes.” – New York Times

The new body types are a sign of acceptance by Mattel that their Barbie brand would need to evolve and change in order to keep up with the modern issues of parents in giving their children a healthy self-image. Whether or not this will work remains to be seen, as Barbie is very much associated with its iconic original doll which is a blonde and impossibly thin Caucasian woman, and that association may be very hard to shed in the minds of consumers, who have held that image for decades. In addition, some parents have begun to worry that the dolls themselves are too gender specific and fosters harmful stereotypes of what girls should and should not play with, a problem that new body types cannot address. Finally, traditional toys have quickly become more reliant on licensing as licensed content has become an immensely powerful force due to consumers having access to entertainment media featuring popular franchises at all times. As such, while many consumers may applaud Mattel’s efforts to modernize Barbie, it does not mean this will ultimately translate to new sales.

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