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Barbie loses material girl image, and her credit card

Kelly Dilworth

A brand-new Barbie is about to hit store shelves, and she doesn’t look anything like the sparkly blond, fuchsia-clad “material girl” I played with growing up in the early 1990s.

Dressed conservatively in a tailored jacket and knee-length skirt, this Barbie looks like she walked straight from the halls of Congress. A candidate for U.S. president, she is joined by an equally sharp-looking female running mate – a first for the 57-year-old doll.

According to The Washington Post, toymaker Mattel is trying to combat declining sales by marketing a less materialistic and more purposeful Barbie to appeal to socially conscious millennials.

To assuage skeptical parents critical of Barbie’s unrealistically thin figure, Mattel introduced a new line of Barbies earlier this year featuring a wide range of body types, skin colors and hairstyles. But despite Barbie’s more realistic frame and wide-ranging career interests (there’s now a Game Developer Barbie, Eye Doctor Barbie and Spaghetti Chef Barbie) she continues to have an image problem — particularly with millennial parents who are wary of Barbie’s traditional focus on bright, shiny “things.”

“It turns out, her body was only part of the problem,” wrote The Washington Post’s Sarah Halzack. “Barbie, it seems, has developed a reputation as something of a material girl.”

According to Mattel’s market research, many people associate Barbie with her pink convertible and multistory Dreamhouse. “A lot of the conversation was focused on what Barbie had – her stuff,” said Mattel’s Tania Missad in an interview with Halzack. “In other words, Mattel researchers found that when people thought of Barbie, they thought of a character whose life was more ‘Real Housewives’ than real world,” Halzack wrote.

That’s the Barbie I remember. In the early 1990s, you didn’t see many plastic female role models that looked more at home on a debate stage than a beach. Instead, the Barbie I knew was marketed as a sunbathing, fashion-obsessed party girl – pretty and fun but not necessarily one to hit the books. (I have yet to see a bookshelf in any Barbie Dreamhouse or Glam Getaway.) If you wanted to take your Barbie on an outing, you could hit the beach with little sis Kelly, go rollerblading with Ken or on a shopping spree in a pink and orange “clothing boutique.”

By the late 1990s, you could even gift your Barbie with her own credit card. In 1997, Mattel teamed up with MasterCard on a credit-themed Cool Shoppin’ Barbie that came equipped with a cash register that sang out, “Credit approved!”

The message I remember receiving from the stick thin, brightly dressed doll was that dresses, shoes, shopping and swanky pink wheels were key to having fun.

Now that consumers are less interested in flashy materialism and millennial parents are looking for more conscientious toys, Mattel has pulled back on the shopping-themed gift sets.

Keeping in line with the pre-recession spending heyday, in 2007, Mattel introduced a “Barbie Fashion Fever Shopping Boutique” that came with a life-sized play debit card that kids could swipe through a Barbie card reader and hear their remaining balance. But now that set is available only through third-party sellers. You can’t purchase the Cool Shoppin’ Barbie anymore either, except through other sellers, nor will you find any other overtly credit or shopping-themed toys on Mattel’s site, such as the now-discontinued Malibu Ave. Barbie Shopping Mall.

However, you’ll still be able to buy a luxe playhouse that looks like a miniature multimillion-dollar mansion, a “glam” pool and a pricey-looking convertible. Despite the ongoing pushback Mattel has received and the company’s gestures toward a makeover, today’s Barbie continues to sell a pricey, materialistic dream that most kids won’t ever be able to afford.

 

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