Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Barbie - looking good for 50

The Daily Telegraph published an article on Barbie's incredible life.

Excerpts follow:

"She hits her half-century in 2009 but... she is still pulling in $3.3 billion a year. Barbie – or, to give her her full name, Barbara Millicent Roberts, is no ordinary 50-year-old."

"Mattel employs hundreds of people [to market Barbie] including 50 designers, 12 hairdressers, a huge marketing operation, and almost 100 who devote themselves to licensing the Barbie name to about 800 companies producing everything from clothes to bedroom furniture."

"Barbie owes her existence to the daughter of Polish immigrants. Ruth Handler and her husband, Elliot, drifted into the toy industry after the Second World War with doll’s houses fashioned from picture-frame offcuts."

"Elliot was the 'el’ in Mattel, the company he founded with Harold 'Matt’ Matson. Their first hit was a toy ukulele. The rising prosperity of the 1950s, greater leisure and the post-war baby boom combined to make toys a thriving industry. And, with careers beginning to open up for girls, the conditions were also ripe for a new kind of doll."

"Existing dolls were mainly helpless infants to be cuddled, but Handler noticed how her daughter, Barbara, preferred to play with paper cut-out dolls, enacting imaginary adult situations instead of treating them as babies. She began to contemplate a new grown-up doll that would allow girls to project fantasies of independence and glamour."

"On holiday in Switzerland she came across a German doll called 'Bild Lilli'. Although Handler did not know it, Lilli was based on a prostitute from a German adult cartoon, and marketed not to children but to men in bars and tobacco shops."

"Back in California, Handler used Lilli as a prototype for her new doll. The 11½in doll was launched at the 1959 New York Toy Fair, named after the Handlers’ daughter. Like Lilli, there was overstated make-up, an exaggerated body shape, a coy sideways glance, and a ponytail – but, unlike the German doll, there were no nipples."

"Industry buyers hated the doll, especially those breasts. Half refused to place an order, others bought small. But Handler’s instincts were soon vindicated. Girls themselves loved Barbie and word spread. By the end of 1959 more than 350,000 dolls had been sold, and sales continued to soar as Handler ploughed more and more into advertising."

"Mattel had to open a department just to deal with the 20,000 fan letters a week. By 1963 it was among the 500 largest companies in the United States."

"Barbie has so far tackled more than 100 careers ranging from air stewardess to palaeontologist, aerobics instructor to Marine Corps sergeant. One of her latest is television chef. She has also been Italian, Parisian, British Royal, Inuit, Japanese, Korean, Jamaican and Native American."

"Barbie’s designers have included Armani, Givenchy, Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, Dior, Versace and Vivienne Westwood."

"There have been failures. Barbie’s little sister, Skipper, launched in 1964, grew breasts when her arm was twisted. Her best friend, Midge, launched in 1962, came pregnant with a rounded belly; when this was lifted off, a baby dropped out."

"Mattel researchers visit children’s homes around the world. Barbie’s placement in a room is noted: lying on the bed or on the floor next to doll’s clothes is good – the first indicates love, the second active play. Sitting on a shelf, unless it is a collector’s Barbie, is bad..."

"Barbie designers take video cameras to girls’ birthday parties, and what they shoot is later examined and analysed. The video can reveal seemingly small but to Mattel vital insights..."

"Barbie’s overseas onslaught began in 1961. Now in 150 different countries, she rules the world. Surveys show 72 per cent of girls in Puerto Rico own a Barbie, 49 per cent in Chile. In Venezuela her usual garb is a ballgown. In Japan she sometimes looks like an anime figure with a large head and big eyes. One limited-production doll, Going Home Barbie, produced by Mattel’s Hong Kong operation and aimed at Americans travelling to China to adopt babies, is a blue-eyed blonde, clutching a tiny, black-haired adoptee."

"Globally, the Barbie licensing business yields $1.5 billion a year."

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