For over 50 years this ever-smiling stick-thin fashion doll, launched by American toy company Mattel, has become synonymous with feminine beauty and glamour. She was born in an age of traditional gender roles that have since wrong-footed many long-standing brands. Fast-forward to 2017 where TV men operate vacuum cleaners and female mountaineers prove deodorants work. In this age of empowering advertising campaigns such as #thisgirlcan and #likeagirl how could Mattel continue to market their pretty and decorative doll? With sales on the downturn, they had to think of a way to disrupt – and reinvent – what Barbie means to girls, and their parents. It turns out that telling a new story with video was the perfect solution.
In a triumph of re-branding Mattel has given us Barbie re-born.  A vehicle for every ambition of girlhood, the company has reframed Barbie as a canvas on which dreams can be projected and success can be achieved.

Upon visiting Barbie online we find that as well as a homemaker or fashion model, we also see her as a vet, a professor, a chef and a palaeontologist. Barbie’s CV is clearly very persuasive as the sky’s the limit with regards to the career paths our plastic heroine can explore. With Mattel’s ‘You Can be Anything’ campaign, comprised of a series of stills, they cleverly position a girls’ dreams of being a Fairy Princess alongside Doctor and Skateboarder. That’s the first brand ‘disruption’. But there are also multiple video inserts waiting to be played, and here the brilliant second stage of the rebrand takes place.

What does a modern girl imagine she could be? In a charming hidden camera 2 minute video, ‘Imagine the Possibilities’, we see various real girls in successful adult careers, a professor delivering a lecture, a vet treating a sick dog, a coach training a football team. The adults in these movies seem genuinely touched and amused as they witness these confident girls living their dreams. And finally, in the biggest disruption of all, the video fades out of the “dream” sequences back to a girl in her room, playing with her Barbie dolls all dressed up for the roles we’ve just seen her play. One, two, three – the connection has been made and the turnaround is complete. Barbie is back, but this time she’s a powerful woman in charge of her career.

According to Ruth Handler, the founder of Barbie, this image of Barbie as an empowering female icon is not a new idea: “My whole philosophy of Barbie was that through the doll, the little girl could be anything she wanted to be. Barbie always represented the fact that a woman has choices,” she says. The TV spot caused a storm upon release, with much celebration of Barbie’s new ‘feminist’ image. But the campaign was not without its critics. In a column for The Guardian, Jessica Valenti writes: “When a girl plays with Barbie, she imagines everything she can become. Except fat, of course. Or not white. Or anything other than the still very standard, horrifyingly-proportioned Barbie.”

OK, so Barbie is yet to tackle that questionable body image. It seems we’ll also have to wait a bit longer before we see a video campaign in which a little boy enjoys some imaginative Barbie playtime. But with over 25 million views on YouTube we have to applaud this charming and thoroughly modern twist on a classic toy that could have long ago gone the way of the golliwog.

This is the power of video to disrupt – a power we understand. If you are based in Bristol or the South-West and want to unleash the potential of your business, contact us today.

Jo Dec 5th, 2017

About Jo Haywood

Jo is the Managing Director at Skylark Media. Before starting Skylark in 2005, Jo ran the BBC Lifestyle website and prior to that directed science documentaries for the BBC and Channel 4. To switch off she can be found on the tennis court, at yoga, or planting trees in the forest garden.