Over The Decades (Niche Marketing Part 9)

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From Kristine Kathryne Rusch:

I’m obsessed with all things Barbie right now. Not because I loved the movie. I haven’t seen it, and am not sure I will. My relationship with the doll is fraught due to some bad childhood moments, and I’m not sure I want to open that memory box all the way in the blues and pinks of Barbie World, no matter how much I like Greta Gerwig, and how subversive and feminist the movie is supposed to be.

Actually, the doll was always meant to be subversive and feminist. Created by Mattel’s co-founder, Ruth Handler, because she noted that dolls for her daughter either encouraged her to be a wife or a mother, Barbie is eternally single, someone who lives her own life.

Experts aren’t sure if Handler’s choice of a risqué German doll as the basis for Barbie was deliberate or not. Barbie certainly didn’t look like the other dolls of that era at all, which always caused controversy.

Barbie was only one small part of Mattel’s company, though. There was the Magic 8 Ball and toys for toddlers (most of which are part of Fisher Price now, and still exist) and other dolls like Chatty Cathy (which gives me the shudders just thinking about it. Dolls and I do not get along, based on long-ago childhood trauma). Hot Wheels and Major Matt Mason and other toys were all in the Mattel lines.

They were all advertised on television, and changed marketing for kids toys forever.

But Barbie, she was a part of the company. Not the whole company. And she was the original niche, something for girls that wasn’t (cough) Chatty Cathy. (God, I hated that doll.)

Barbie always changed with the times. She got a cool house and a nifty if bland boyfriend and her own car and she had her own friends. I only noticed these changes because my own friends had Barbies.

Then Barbie changed. She became representative, not just with friends of color, but Barbie herself was Black or Latina or Asian. She had real careers. I remember walking into Toys R Us back when it still existed and actually walking through the Barbie aisle, looking at all the different dolls.

It wasn’t until the movie came out that I realized how many fashion designers partnered with Mattel to create limited edition Barbies. And how many celebrities asked for their own Barbie. I didn’t realize that Barbie’s promotions had changed over the years, including  a campaign in 1985 titled “We Girls Can Do Anything” with this little tagline:

We can dream dreams and make them come true because nothing’s worth doing that we girls can’t do, your moms know it too. We girls can do anything, right Barbie?

All of these changes made an impact on the doll and on the consumer. I was listening to the NPR Politics Podcast on July 7 and I heard something that brought all of the Barbie stuff to my attention.

NPR’s Politics Podcast ends the week with a segment called “Can’t Let It Go,” which focuses on issues of the week that the reporters can’t stop thinking about. Maura Liasson mentioned that she couldn’t let go of the backlash to the Barbie movie in Vietnam.

The hosts discussed this for a moment, then host Miles Parks asked the others if they were going to see the movie. Liasson said, with disdain, that she was not going to go because “my daughter is now 22 years old and I don’t have to.”

To which host Sarah McCammon responded—not defensively, but strongly—like this: “I don’t have a daughter. I’m going to see it anyway.”

That caught my ear. I knew that Maura Liasson was close to my age. (Actually, she’s older.) She responded with the same tone and forcefulness that I would have used if anyone had asked me. It’s essentially, Barbie? Hell, no.

Link to the rest at Kristine Kathryne Rusch

PG isn’t certain whether it’s good marketing or nostalgia for girlhood or something more profound, but a lot of people have been writing about Barbie.

Of course, PG is on the wrong side of the gender divide to be in a position to speculate on the true meaning of Barbie, but he’s interested by how much writing by women of all sorts who might not have much in common with each other are being moved to write about the movie and the zeitgeist of Barbie.