On Thursday, Mattel unveiled curvy, petite and tall versions of its iconic fashion doll whose unrealistically thin shape has attracted criticism for decades. The three new body types will also be sold in an assortment of skin tones, eye colors and hairstyles.
The move is about more than just making Barbie look different. While Barbie was once Mattel’s powerhouse brand, sales have plummeted in recent years as the doll has struggled to remain relevant to little girls who do not look like her and who play with toys other than dolls.
“This is about drawing a wider demographic that had turned away from Barbie back to Barbie,” said Jim Silver, the editor of TTPM, a toy review website.
Barbie’s latest makeover began in a big way last year, when Mattel released a broad assortment of dolls in a greater number of skin tones, eye colors and even facial structures as part of its Fashionistas line.
“I think today, frankly more so than any other time, Barbie is truly representing what girls see,” said Richard Dickson, who is Mattel’s president and chief operating officer and the executive in charge of Barbie’s reinvention.
But some industry experts and academics have long doubted that cosmetic changes – whether racial or ethnic or body shapes – can revive the popularity of the 57-year-old Barbie, whose sales have been declining by double digits in recent years.
Executives like Dickson have been optimistic, pointing to signs that Barbie’s in-store sales began picking up last year. Still, third-quarter sales in 2015 – the most recent figures available – showed that Barbie sales declined 14 percent from the same period a year earlier.
The slumping sales may also be partly attributed to the shift away from traditional toys toward electronics and games in recent years, as many parents and children have clamored for less gender-specific toys. Companies like GoldieBlox have sprung up to offer girls more career-oriented toys, and even Lego, the world’s top toymaker, has had to alter its strategy and some of its building block lines to accommodate the growth in the market for learning toys that appeal to boys and girls.
Dickson has been steering Mattel’s marketing campaign to focus more on Barbie’s career ambitions than her body image. A new “Imagine the Possibilities” ad, for example, features little girls (but no boys) picturing themselves as teachers, coaches and other professionals.
Barbie’s aspirations have translated to Mattel’s products: Hello Barbie, the interactive talking doll, asks children about what they want to be when they grow up – a far cry from the Barbie who once claimed that “Math class is tough.”
“The ones in multiple skin tones did phenomenal for Mattel, and it showed them that people wanted much more than the blond blue-eyed Barbie,” Silver said. (Mattel introduced an African-American Barbie in the late 1960s, and the first Asian Barbie appeared in 1980 as part of its “dolls of the world” collection.)
Still, Mattel executives have struggled to rebrand Barbie as an aspirational figure, one not so closely identified with her unnatural body measurements.
“It’s hardly a bolt of genius to say ‘Let’s make dolls that look different,'” said Sean McGowan, an analyst with Oppenheimer and Company. “It’s more like saying ‘Yeah, we stuck with that one single iconic image for too long, let’s try multiple ones.’ ”
The new set of dolls was reported earlier by Time magazine Thursday and is available for pre-order online. The dolls are expected to hit store shelves at major retailers, including Wal-Mart and Toys R Us, in March, according to a Mattel spokesman, Alex Clark.
While some of Barbie’s old clothes may fit her fuller-figured, taller or shorter friends, Mattel plans to introduce an assortment of outfits tailored to the new body types.
“I think as a woman it’s about time, and as a physician, I strongly support that,” said Dr. Kelli Harding, assistant professor of psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center, who has a background in body dysmorphic disorder. “For a little girl, it’s important to have diversity in what they’re playing with.”
Mattel is remaining tight-lipped about how it came up with Barbie’s new proportions. It’s part of the “art and the science,” as Dickson put it, of creating any toy.
But a curvy, or more full-figured, Barbie doll is about more than just reshaping one brand. The initiative is part of a broader cultural shift at Mattel, where executives have been trying to transform the company into a 21st century toymaker.
Faced with weakening sales in its core brands like Barbie and Fisher-Price, and criticism that it was too slow to pick up on trends, Mattel has undertaken several efforts to improve innovation.
A little over a year ago, it created its Toy Box division to fast-track new products, like Hello Barbie and the virtual reality View-Master, two products Mattel has used to showcase that it can be as tech-savvy as its competitors.
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.
And some parents, concerned about negative gender stereotypes (a racecar for a son, a princess doll for a daughter), have pushed retailers into more gender-neutral territory.
The Disney Store, for example, decided to label all of its children’s Halloween costumes as “for kids,” as opposed to for boys or girls. Amazon, which by some measures accounts for more than half of all online sales, has banished gender distinctions for its toys.
Last year, for probably the first time in Mattel’s history, a Moschino Barbie commercial featured a boy playing with the doll.
“I think that this is bigger than Barbie’s shape, because this really gets at gender inequality in the United States as well,” Harding said.