Barbie Doll Improves Inclusivity, Diversity, and Sales : The Indicator from Planet Money There's been a Barbie boom recently, and it's due in part to new collections of products featuring diverse skin tones and body types, as well as an accompanying PR makeover.
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Barbie's Big Makeover

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Barbie's Big Makeover

Barbie's Big Makeover

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SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:

This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Stacey Vanek Smith. The coronavirus has transformed the economy in all kinds of ways. One of the big ways is buying stuff. Americans bought more stuff in 2020 than ever before - big things like cars and TVs and computers and some littler stuff.

What's your Barbie's name?

YAKIRA: Her name is Ballerina (ph).

VANEK SMITH: This is Yakira (ph). She is 4. Her dad, Michael Pickett (ph), says Yakira's Barbie love has only grown over the past year, along with her collection of all things Barbie.

MICHAEL PICKETT: The Barbie car, the Barbie house, the Barbie bicycle, Barbie workout. You have the pink Jeep. She has that as well. That comes with the cellphone, the coffee, the coffee mug.

VANEK SMITH: Last year was a big one for Barbie. Barbie was the top selling toy property of 2020, leaving Legos, Paw Patrol, Hot Wheels and even Star Wars and Baby Yoda in her dust. The thing is just five years ago, Barbie was a brand in crisis. Sales were in freefall, and the busty blonde seemed to be on the brink. Today on the show, Barbie's big makeover - how Mattel went from bleak Barbie to peak Barbie.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS IS MY MOMENT")

AMERICA YOUNG: (As Barbie, singing) This is my moment. I'm singing above the noise. This is my moment.

VANEK SMITH: Back in 2015, things were not looking good for Barbie. Kelly Gilblom is an entertainment reporter at Bloomberg News, and she says part of the problem was that the doll hadn't really evolved since it was first launched in the late 1950s.

KELLY GILBLOM: It was still a blonde doll that was kind of the white ideal of beauty, and that was becoming increasingly a problem for Mattel.

VANEK SMITH: Between 2011 and 2015, Barbie sales dropped by a third. And for Mattel, says Kelly, this was a full-on crisis.

GILBLOM: People say, you know, however Barbie goes, that's how Mattel goes.

VANEK SMITH: And it looked like Barbie was in danger of going bust. Mattel's CEO ordered a big sweeping consumer study about Barbie, and Kelly says the responses were not pretty.

GILBLOM: Everybody thought Barbie was vapid and shallow. And I mean, I think they were partly shocked because Barbie has so many professions where she's a doctor. And I think they really felt like that was enough to make little girls see it as aspirational, and none of the little girls did seem to think it was aspirational.

VANEK SMITH: And then there was all the stuff about Barbie's body.

GILBLOM: There were studies that were coming out that were saying if Barbie was expanded into human size, she wouldn't have enough room for a liver. And she wouldn't be able to hold her head up.

VANEK SMITH: Those things feel important...

GILBLOM: (Laughter).

VANEK SMITH: ...Especially if you're going to be a doctor and have all these jobs.

Mattel went into full crisis mode.

LISA MCKNIGHT: Barbie - she's too big to fail.

VANEK SMITH: This is Lisa McKnight, global head of Barbie at Mattel. She came on board at Barbie's darkest hour. Lisa knew that Barbie needed an extreme makeover, so she and her team rolled up their sleeves and started examining all things Barbie. Giant-Headed, vapid and super-white though she was, Barbie was a commercial force worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Any change was a risk to the iconic doll and to the entire company of Mattel. They had to get it right.

MCKNIGHT: The stakes were high. And, of course, we knew we needed diversity.

VANEK SMITH: In 2015, Lisa and her team introduced a new line of Barbie fashionista dolls.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Can't resist a fashionista.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Which fashionista are you?

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Barbie girl.

VANEK SMITH: Traditionally, the fashionista dolls had been almost all white with long, straight hair. The new line of two dozen dolls had eight different skin tones and some curly hair options, but they were all still the lean, liver-less Barbies of yore. And Lisa says that was the next thing they looked at.

MCKNIGHT: We needed body diversity - really when we started to attack her body, if you will.

VANEK SMITH: But attacking Barbie's body was complicated. It meant making changes to everything in the Barbieverse (ph).

MCKNIGHT: We had to make sure that our fashions fit every doll, that every doll could fit again back into the Dreamhouse, into, you know, our cars. So it was really complex.

VANEK SMITH: In 2016, Mattel rolled out curvy Barbie, petite Barbie and tall Barbie. The new dolls were well-received. Sales started to pick up, and Lisa says her team pushed further.

MCKNIGHT: We have a Barbie in a wheelchair, Barbie with vitiligo. I mean, the fact that the team was able to capture that skin condition in a product, it's really - she's beautiful.

VANEK SMITH: Lisa says there are around 175 Barbie dolls right now, and it's the most diverse doll line in the marketplace. Of course, looks were only part of the equation. A lot of the problems that consumers had with Barbie had to do with her personality.

MCKNIGHT: She was viewed as too perfect, unrelatable. We started to break that down. We started to have her become vulnerable.

VANEK SMITH: Mattel beefed up Barbie's YouTube channel, and an animated Barbie now does frequent video posts from her extremely pink bedroom.

MCKNIGHT: This is for kids, so a lot of the content is entertaining. She might be doing DIY activities, teaching a new dance. But she also talks about having a bad day, feeling sad.

VANEK SMITH: The YouTube channel was a hit. Kids and parents liked Barbie's curated real-talk. And then the pandemic hit. Kids were suddenly home from school, and parents began desperately buying toys and games and videos to entertain them. Demand for all things Barbie went nuts, says Lisa.

MCKNIGHT: So we started to advertise and market one of Barbie's iconic items, the Dreamhouse. It's a $200, you know, suggested retail item, so it's a big gift. And it's usually a holiday gift. The Dreamhouse took off, and I think we sold a Dreamhouse a minute last year.

VANEK SMITH: Mattel also doubled down on Barbie's vlog. Barbie and all of her friends went into quarantine. They talked about wearing masks, missing their friends and even social issues.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

YOUNG: (As Barbie) Hey, everybody.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Nikki) Hi, everyone.

VANEK SMITH: This is Barbie and her Black friend Nikki in one of the vlogs that went viral last year, talking about the Black Lives Matter movement and racism.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Nikki) People might think that my life looks fine, but the truth is I and so many other Black people have to deal with racism all the time. It's really hurtful, and it can be scary and sad. And I wanted to share some stories about that today.

VANEK SMITH: Mattel got lots of kudos for this video. It was held up as a model for how to start talking about issues of race with young children. By the end of last year, Barbie's vlog had 10 million subscribers, and Mattel had sold nearly $1.5 billion worth of all things Barbie. And the inclusive Barbies were leading the pack. One of the top selling Barbies of 2020 - a Barbie who came with a wheelchair. Another mega hit - a Maya Angelou Barbie made in honor of Black History Month sold out almost immediately. Mattel's total makeover had worked. Kids loved the new inclusive Barbies, and so did parents. Michael Pickett, father of 4-year-old Barbie enthusiast Yakira, says he has noticed the changes that Barbie has been making, and he's been pretty impressed.

PICKETT: You know, traditionally growing up, we always thought Barbie was just a pretty blonde who didn't really do anything - you know, nothing constructive and had a boyfriend named Ken. (Laughter) That's all we really knew. And so as I began to see the program, Barbie definitely evolved into a role model. Even I've said downright, OK, Barbie's different.

VANEK SMITH: Mattel's new plan is to do to Barbie what Disney has done with Marvel superheroes - a kind of Barbie multiverse that will feature dozens of new shows and specials featuring Barbie and her little sister and her friends and, of course, Ken. He has been on his own journey of transformation. He has a bunch of new body types and skin tones. There is now even a Ken with a man bun.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BARBIE GIRL")

RENE DIF: Come on, Barbie. Let's go party.

LENE NYSTROM: (Singing) I'm a Barbie girl.

VANEK SMITH: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Jamila Huxtable and fact-checked by Sam Cai. THE INDICATOR is edited by Kate Concannon and is a production of NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BARBIE GIRL")

NYSTROM: (Singing) Imagination - life is your creation.

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