Thursday, January 19

Bald Barbie

It's been a busy few years for our dear brand Barbie.

In 2009, Barbie celebrated her 50th birthday, right along with a whole bunch of baby boomers. 50!

In 2010, Barbie got a new career as voted by her public on social media.  It was a write-in vote, actually, because so many people wanted her to be a  Computer Engineer.  Sign of the times.

In 2011, also as voted by her public, Barbie got back together with Ken.  It was quite the social media sensation.  On Valentine's Day, no less.

So I guess it's not too much of a stretch for there to be a movement to have a Bald Barbie, right?  Whhhaaatttt?

I think that was the innocence of the sentiment in the beginning anyway.  But it's now turned into a career-defining, brand-bashing, charity-churning nightmare for many.  And I can't believe I am entering the fray.  But there is a lot of branding driving a lot of the facts and emotions, so here I go.

It all started out with a petition to have Mattel make a Bald Barbie, to show little kids who are suffering from diseases that it's actually ok to be bald.  At least that is what I think was the sentiment.  And at first blush, it seems fine.  This is about kids after all, so if a toy will help them deal with the trauma in their lives, then that's ok by me.

The problem is that all of us adults got involved.  And all sorts of brand perceptions got tangled into the discussion.  I'm also not sure that Mattel responded in the most 2012 social-media-savvy kind of way.  They pretty much turned their backs to it ... but a can of worms was opened and it became a feeding frenzy of article after pov after debate.

Enter argument #1:  why should kids be getting self esteem from a toy?

Argument #2:  Barbie, for 50 years, has been perpetuating body image issues for girls so who is she to take this on?

#3:  This seems like it's all about cancer, what's next?  Down's Syndrome?

#4:  Shouldn't all that money and effort go into research to cure the disease, not make and buy toys?

#5:  Aren't the proceeds from all those "charity" projects super inefficient, with very little going to actually do anything?  Enter another brand issue and another debate about how to help a cause.

And on and on.   All of them valid arguments, I am sure.  I am not going to debate any of those points because I don't know enough about any one of them.  But here's what I think ...

I don't think anyone who started this intended to be arguing any of those points.  Now maybe they should have thought it through first, but I don't think that's where it started.  And I don't think they had any idea of the powerful emotions around some of these brands that ended up in the arguments.  Like Barbie and Susan G. Komen.

I think it started out as something innocent.  Something that a group of parents were trying to do to make their kids feel better.  Could a toy possibly do that?  Maybe, I'm a parent and I'd be willing to do almost anything.

I also think that we are burned out on "pink" (and all brands pink) and that we so are skeptical of anything that smacks of being inauthentic or bureaucratic or sneaky ... that we turn off.  So we all jumped on this issue in reaction to brand perceptions that became a part of the texture of the debate.  Not saying that any of that is wrong, just trying to break it all down and understand it.

But these are kids and these are parents trying to do anything for their kids.  Is there something wrong with them asking for a big, iconic brand to help them out?  Mattel doesn't have to do it, and it doesn't have to pick a cause ... but isn't ok just to ask?  Was it that bad of an idea that it couldn't even be put forth as an option?

It's amazing to me how brand perceptions drive almost instanteous reactions ... I guess that's the power of branding and the power of social media in communicating a brand's behavior.

What's your experience?  Jim

Jim Joseph
President of Lippe Taylor
Author of The Experience Effect
Professor at NYU


  1. Creepy. I don't know that much about the campaign, but it seems like just another marketing scam to make money off of a disease that gets a lot of press. Now if 100% of the profits were donated to cancer research, that might make it more palatable. But personally, I think it's nuts.

  2. Excellent post, Jim. While I think the choice of using Barbie was dubious for many of the same reasons you stated, I was willing to suspend my feelings aside and get behind this if a company agreed to produce a doll and donated a substantial portion of the profits to pediatric cancer research. Based on the posts and articles I've seen in recent days, the movement is bordering on hysteria to the point where different POVs are met with threats and bullying. There is now even a FB page demanding the firing of the ACS Comm Director for weighing in (though he did make a huge misstep by categorizing childhood cancers as being rare which added gasoline to an already heated fire).

    However, this is becoming what appears to be a no-win situation and upsetting to people on both sides. Has this become getting the doll made at any cost? Has it occurred to people that any company that steps up to produce it (could) be similarly attacked for profiting from cancer unless they partner with an organization ahead of time and work that out?

    That said, I get the passion involved here and think you did a wonderful job outlining the issues. I completely agree that the idea behind Bald Barbie started with the best of intentions. But you're spot on -- adults got involved and the vicious dialogue that has ensued about whether or not the doll should be made is really a distraction (in my opinion). The REAL issue is how we can all make a difference in getting funding for ALL cancers and diseases for people of every age, genders, etc. and be assured that when we purchase something, our money is going where we are told it is.

  3. Loved this post and also the blog. Branding Agencies in India are also catching up with the West. Lets hope a war and more creativity.

  4. Thanks for the perspectives - this is such a tricky one. Jim.