Mattel’s Barbie – Staying Alive

Some professionals, scholars, and mothers feel the targeting of children is wrong because they are not aware of the persuasive powers of commercials – a notion scholar David Bennett calls “inventing a consumer unconscious[1]. Not surprisingly, the consumer unconscious arises at the same time as Barbie, television, and the return to normalcy after World War II.  “Consuming Kids: The Commercialization of Childhood”, a documentary by Adrianna Barbaro and Jeremy Earp, explores the concept of the child’s consumer power and the marketing strategies of companies aimed at creating and exploiting the consumer child. The video uses Barbie among other prominent toys to demonstrate the 360 degree marketing style in which children are bombarded with commercials, games, music, and videos all trying to instill a sense of brand loyalty[2]. Barbie is a prime example of the evolution of marketing techniques. Back in the 1950s, Ruth Handler invested $500,000 into sponsoring the Mickey Mouse Club in order to promote their toys during program breaks[3]. Once Mattel learned that commercials were essential to tapping into the consumer power, they utilized commercials persuasive power on children. They hired children psychologists, formed focus groups, and used characters from television programs to sell their products.


  360 degree marketing style[4]

According to “Consuming Kids”, childhood is so fragile and volatile that children cling to television characters who are often the only source of stability and marketing strategies play off of children’s trust to sell products[5].  Experts claimed that once kids were hooked on the characters, the next evolutionary step in marketing strategies was the movement into mass media movies, television, and books as well as using character names to sell other products such as cameras, bikes, and play dough[6]. Mattel’s Barbie is a prime example of this evolution through the My Scene Dolls which were connected to internet games, Workout Barbie (that comes with all the gear), and American Idol Barbie used to promote the Barbie karaoke machine. While it is hard to pinpoint which came first, Barbie’s style or girls’ cultural change, experts fear that the two enable each other. However, it is evident that the change in marketing styles provides a visual representation of the change in culture. For example, an original commercial of Barbie talks about girls being beautiful while more current commercials show a more shallow expectation of beauty emphasizing Barbie’s jewelry. Barbie is only a one tiny aspect in the world of issues surrounding child consumerism and the battle for our children’s innocence.  Barbie was able to take advantage of the changing climate of women’s roles in society as well as the new positioning of toy advertising directly to children.

Compare a Barbie commerical from 1959 to one from 2009. Can you tell how society has changed?

1959 First Commerical


“1959 First Ever Barbie Commercial” Commercial, 1:02. Posted by “BarbieCollectors,” May 21, 2007. (Accessed April 22, 2013).

This is the first Barbie commercial which emphasizes femininity in terms of being “beautiful”.

My Scene Dolls: Modern Commmerical


“Mattel My Scene Swappin’ Styles Commercial Ad” Commercial, 0:30. Posted by “Calicool17,” May 4, 2009. (Accessed April 22, 2013).

This commercial emphasizes the material nature of Barbie.




[1]  Dave Bennett, “Getting the Id to Go Shopping: Psychoanalysis, Advertising, Barbie Dolls, and the Invention of the Consumer Unconscious”, Public Culture 17, No.1 (2005):1. (Accessed April 22, 2013).

[2] Adriana Barbaro and Jeremy Earp. “Consuming Kids: The Commercialization of Childhood.”  Documentary, 66:06. Filmed 2008, posted by “vidyanidhi das,” July 23, 2012. (Accessed April 22, 2013).

[3] PBS. “Ruth Handler: Marketing Toys” on PBS: They Made America. June 30, 2004.

[4] KaseyMoore, “Technology Barbie.” Photograph. Fredericksburg, Va., 2013. From personal collection.

[5] Adriana Barbaro and Jeremy Earp. “Consuming Kids: The Commercialization of Childhood.”  Documentary, 66:06. Filmed 2008, posted by “ vidyanidhi das,” July 23, 2012. (Accessed April 22, 2013)

[6] Ibid.




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