Lots of talk about the new Barbie. But what about her commercial?

February 1, 2016

So, after all these years, Barbie is finally making her foray into the real world. A new commercial from Mattel heralds the diverse line-up of figures, featuring a curvier doll, a petit doll, and others, none as Stepford-like as the leggy, thin blonde who has represented the brand for decades.

For obvious reasons, this is a good thing. And the film does a nice job of introducing the concept. The spot has a more serious tone than what we see in most toy commercials, with softer music and adult language. Yes, young girls are shown playing with dolls, in a light airy setting, which is typical. But the children deliver lines that are far more socially aware. “It’s important for Barbies to look different,” a child says, opening the spot. Later, one states she likes her Barbie because it reminds her of her mom. I respect that the children are not mere shills. A huge improvement.

What’s even more unusual is that the film is intercut with shots of Mattel designers talking about their vision for these new dolls. Now girls have dolls “they can relate to,” says one. We see these designers making the dolls as well, spinning their hair and sewing their outfits. That’s radical. I can’t think of a toymaker ever showing its toys getting made. In the past, dolls were always seen imitating human behavior. Showing them being built defies that illusion.

But so what? I think children comprehend dolls are manufactured and can appreciate the craftsmanship that goes into it. Granted, a hip designer creating a prototype probably looks nothing like the factory workers who really do make these Barbies but that’s another story.

Before writing further, I have to commend Mattell and its ad agency, BBDO San Francisco for not only evolving Barbie into the 21st century but for making a commercial with a degree of gravitas. Both things are remarkable and deserve praise.

That said, I still wonder about the oldest stigma regarding Barbie and dolls in general: that they are only for girls. As with Disney’s Princesses, I think there’s something forced about steering girls into passive feminine roles. I have three daughters and lived through it. I always cringed when they obsessed over dollies. It’s all so weirdly Victorian. We boys grew up with Star Wars figures and G I Joe. Men of action, power and violence. Then video games. Science, technology and war. Not that that’s a good thing but it completely reinforces that it’s a man’s world.  Even though it’s understandable, there are no boys and only 3 seconds of one man in this commercial. Maybe in the next campaign they can find a way to be less “girlie.” Likewise, where is Ken? Will he be gaining weight and going bald? Or will they take him another direction a la Bruce Jenner?

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