Inclusive Toys: Will A Curvier Barbie Help Mattel’s Bottom Line? by [email protected]

Americus Reed and Rebecca Hains discuss the strategy behind the new, more realistic-looking Barbie.

Two of the biggest toy makers in history are making changes to their product lines. Mattel, maker of the Barbie doll, is adding curvy, petite and tall dolls to try to address an issue it may have connecting with young girls. LEGO is introducing a mini figure that uses a wheelchair. Rebecca Hains, professor of advertising and media studies at Salem State University in Massachusetts, and Wharton marketing professor Americus Reed recently appeared on the [email protected] show on Wharton Business Radio on SiriusXM channel 111 to discuss the strategy behind these new product lines and what it could mean for the companies.

An edited transcript of the conversation appears below.

[email protected]: Why hasn’t this kind of toy development happened before?

Rebecca Hains: I think we’re at a really interesting cultural point in which social media has given consumers such a strong voice that they are being heard by brands and decision makers in a way that is really unprecedented. There’s been this groundswell of grass-roots campaigning from parents and organizations calling for some changes to make children’s toys healthier and less stereotypical, and we’re finally seeing some fruit to those efforts.

[email protected]: But people have complained for decades, and it’s just now with the social media element that maybe that pressure is being felt to a level where they say “OK, enough is enough.”

Hains: People who are strong social media users can independently gather their own followings, and those followings will amplify their voices to really compete with the voices of the manufacturers and the brands that typically have pushed back and said, “No, no, no, this is fine.” You can’t ignore that much activism online. It really becomes news itself and gets reported on by mainstream publications and takes on a life of it’s own in a way that it couldn’t maybe 10 years ago.

[email protected]: What was your reaction to this when it started to pop up?

Americus Reed: It was very surprising in some senses because I had a similar reaction as you did, which is, “Wow, yeah, it’s about time for this to happen.” I was wracking my brain trying to come up with some kind of business case or a moral case or any case that would argue against doing this, and I really couldn’t come up with anything.

“We’re at a really interesting cultural point in which social media has given consumers such a strong voice that they are being heard by brands and decision makers in a way that is really unprecedented.” –Rebecca Hains

[email protected]: Is it surprising that this is something that’s very important to a lot of people, not just here in the United States but around the globe, and it’s as important as any other issue that we have going on today?

Reed: I think Rebecca makes a great point. This amplification on social media of these issues gives parity to everything because the voice is loud and amplified, it spreads very quickly. I think companies are faced with the challenge of understanding what should I listen to and what should I not listen to in terms of changing my business model, my economic practices, etc.

Hains: What is also playing into this recent decision on the Mattel side is that Barbie sales have been dropping every quarter since 2012. In [the third quarter of 2015], Barbie was down 14%. If people are voting with their dollars and turning their attentions to other brands that they perceive as being better for girls, then [corporate leaders] have to make a change. I think the combination of the social media outcry and the numbers not lying forced their hand.

[email protected]: How much of that sales number is not reaching the consumer because there are a lot of digital options for kids?

Reed: That’s a great point. I think it’s hard to disentangle the reasons why these numbers may be dropping so much for Barbie. To what extent do strategies like this appear to be more desperate attempts at marketing gimmicks at the 11th hour correlated with sales dropping and things of that nature? Don’t you want to make these changes when things are good?

Hains: It does seem a little bit desperate to me, especially considering that in 2012 and 2014, we saw independent brands launch dolls that look very similar to me to the petite Barbie. That’s the Lottie doll that’s now sold in 30 countries and the Lammily doll that was a crowd-funding success in 2014. Mattel is late to the game. These dolls have already been put out there by people risking their own money, risking their own everything to make a change that they feel is important. They did the hard work for them in proving that there’s a market for it. You’d rather be the front runner.

[email protected]: What is your reaction to LEGO’s decision to add a mini figure that uses a wheelchair to some of its sets?

Hains: What’s interesting to me about Lego is when it comes to representing disability, if you’re using a wheelchair, it’s not actually requiring major changes to your manufacturing. It’s wonderful, but I also think that’s why Barbie’s been getting more attention. Not that it should be a zero sum game, and I think both representations of body image for women and of diversity in terms of ability are very important. But there’s something that just seems more monumental about seeing a doll that is called Barbie that isn’t the extremely thin, extremely buxom figure that we see as an icon culturally.

[email protected]: LEGO is a European company and Mattel is an American company. Could that be a factor in the overall viewpoint of these companies and the types of products they have made over the last 40 or 50 years?

Hains: I’ve looked at who’s in charge at LEGO and it is a lot of white men who are the leadership there. LEGO has actually surpassed Mattel in the last statistics that I looked at in terms of their sales to kids, but they have serious gender issues as well. Their gender representation has gotten a lot of criticism and similar amounts of pushback, I think, to what Barbie has gotten on social media in recent years. I’m not sure that I would say, “Oh, they’re European and maybe they’ve got a little bit more liberalism going on.”

“There’s something that just seems more monumental about seeing a doll that is called Barbie that isn’t the extremely thin, extremely buxom figure that we see as an icon culturally.” –Rebecca Hains

Reed: I was having a conversation with some friends of mine and their children, and they were talking about some of the LEGO toys that they were buying for both boys and girls. It’s interesting to think about those stereotypes and how they may link to how these products are framed or positioned to kids. At the end of the day, I think that what is really interesting about the Barbie case is that you have this underlying body image thing going on that is a bit more prominent. Not any less important, but certainly discussed a lot more. I

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