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 Knowledge at Wharton 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.
Knowledge at Wharton: 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.
Knowledge at Wharton: 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.
Knowledge at Wharton: 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
Knowledge at Wharton: 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.
Knowledge at Wharton: 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.
Knowledge at Wharton: 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.
Knowledge at Wharton: 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 was thinking about, for example, the Dove “real beauty” campaign and all of these attempts to try to make things more realistic so young kids can identify with the toys. There’s an assumption that you’re attracted to the toy because it relates to you, it speaks to you, you can connect with it. I think that’s an important point that underlies all of this.
Knowledge at Wharton: Over the last five years, LEGO has just exploded sales-wise because of the partnerships they have lined up with companies such as Disney. This move is probably seen as they’re reacting to something they may have missed within culture. With Barbie, there is seemingly a monetary tie because of how their sales have gone south in the last few years.
Hains: I do think that may be the case. What’s interesting to remember about the Barbies that I think a lot of people have been missing is the Barbie body types are only going to be in one Barbie line, the Fashionistas line. Not only are they a little late to the party, but they’re not going all in. We’re not going to be seeing curvy princesses or curvy rock stars. It’s only the fashion- and appearance-oriented dolls, not the ones that come in president outfits or astronaut outfits. They’re just testing it out, and I think they’re going to see what the reaction is and decide whether to roll it out to their other lines. I’m already seeing a little bit of blowback online. Some of the interesting critiques I’ve read are, for example, this curvy Barbie is really not like a plus-sized woman. It’s more like a plus-sized model, which we know is more of an average woman. When it comes down to it, Barbie is in a bit of a pickle because it is a paradox for such an appearance-oriented brand that is trying to address body image.
Knowledge at Wharton: How do you think these decisions play out with other toy makers?
Hains: I do think that other toy makers will be watching and interested to see what their sales are like, see if this gives them an uptick and helps their downward spiral. It’s definitely a case to watch. I really do hope that the parents who are committed to seeing a more expanded range of body types vote with their dollars and go and buy some of these toys. On the other hand, I’m a little bit worried that the retailers that make the ultimate decision of what items to stock on the shelves might leave curvy Barbie at Mattel headquarters and not even have her on the shelves for people to buy on the spur of the moment.
Knowledge at Wharton: Going back to the publicity aspect of this, if somebody goes to the store and doesn’t find the products, that’s going to blow back on the individual store itself.
Reed: Yes, there’s a big part of demand going on here. This is a dangerous game to play because if you’re trying to test it out, trying to find that sweet spot where this kind of demand will pick up, then Rebecca’s point about not going all in is going to be signaling to folks that perhaps this is not a part of an important message for you as an organization.
Knowledge at Wharton: This also speaks to the change that companies have made to show inclusion and diversity in television ads as well.
Reed: That’s exactly correct. The other point of tension that you’re touching on is this idea that advertising is meant to be kind of aspirational and, in some ways, fantasy. I don’t know where that fine line is between manipulation versus just trying to be more inclusive and more reflective of a more diverse kind of audience.
Hains: I think the aspirational point Americus raises is excellent and an important thing to bear in mind between LEGO and Barbie. I think Barbie is seen as an aspirational figure. You want the sort of freedom and fun and beauty that comes with Barbie. I don’t know that any kid wants to be a LEGO.
Reed: You want to be in some senses politically correct, but not just for the sake of being politically correct because using the right language and imagery allows you to communicate better with your audience. I was reading online this notion that it’s bad to refer to persons with disabilities as “handi-capable” or differently abled or physically challenged. It’s like, “Listen, don’t pander to me. I just want to be treated like everybody else.” So how does that strategy fit into the decisions to create these kind of advertising images?
“There’s an assumption that you’re attracted to the toy because it relates to you, it speaks to you, you can connect with it.” –Americus Reed
Hains: My thought is companies that are trying to do this have to proceed very carefully because consumers are so savvy nowadays. There’s an understanding that some brands engage in what we would call “good washing” or trying to make their brand look better in a marketing effort, not out of a sincerity. When brands are making these moves, it’s a tricky thing because you don’t want to end up making the wrong decision and lose market share. But it is important to make it seem like you’re as all in as possible and doing it for the right reasons. That you’re not reacting to losing sales but that you’re saying, “You know what? No, we realize that we were wrong.” Personally, I would like to see someone from Mattel come out and address the comments they made in 2014 that went viral for a bit. They were saying, “The body image problems aren’t from our dolls, it’s moms and peers that give girls bad body images.” They were saying that in interviews. But that was before they had a big shakeup. They brought in new management, new leadership for Barbie. Maybe they could kind of address that.
Knowledge at Wharton: Even though you have a change in management, when that statement is made from a company, the consumer is going to tie that to the company.
Reed: Once it’s out there, once it’s been breathed into the universe, it’s out there. As Rebecca is saying, social media can pick it up and give it life, which is really, really interesting. I was thinking about the remarks by the head of Lululemon, who basically said at some point, “Well, our clothes aren’t for everybody.”
Knowledge at Wharton: Since Mattel is just testing this, it’s something that is not going to severely impact their bottom line because they’re making these changes in such a small manner at this point.
Hains: I think so, although I’m certain that they are going to be crunching the numbers and looking at the data very carefully to see what this does for the Fashionistas line and then extrapolating from there to see what else they can do. That suggests that this isn’t a, “We have to make this change, it’s the right thing to do.” It’s, “Let’s see what happens if we make this change.”
Reed: I think it’s an advisement point for companies and those individuals in the C suite who need to make these kinds of decisions. Rebecca, what advice would you give to those strategists to do it in the most authentic way possible? For example, would it be seen as more credible if you somehow allow that message to come out not from you but from others?
Hains: Mattel has actually done some of that. Last year, they hired some bloggers who were pro girl empowerment to be their mouthpieces, and you could see the fine print at the bottom that said, “This is a sponsored post by Mattel.” They buy their way into these spaces. I think in 2010, they sponsored Take Our Daughters and Sons To Work Day, which Ms. Magazine called out as hypocritical. Last year, the campaign for Commercial Free Childhood called them out for basically buying into the Girl Scouts. I think they had some sponsorship with the Girl Scouts and people were saying, “Girl Scouts is a non-commercial space, Barbie has no place in the Girl Scouts.” But Mattel really wanted to have this relationship, so I think the big question is how do they do things in a way that people will authentically, organically and without being paid say, “I am for Barbie and I think this is a great change.” They’ve got a tough mountain to climb on this one because they’ve got decades of criticism that they ignored.
Knowledge at Wharton: But even LEGO understood that they needed to make a change at some point. A friend of mine sent me a picture of an ad from about 1974 or 1975 of a little red-haired girl who’s building Legos. They now have Legos that are really more geared for girls as well.
Hains: Right, and a lot of people have been sharing that original ad from the 1970s. The little girl, she’s holding up this creation, it says, “What it is is beautiful.” And she’s not wearing pink, she’s not all dolled up, she is just a kid. I actually explained this in the recent article I wrote for the Boston Globe magazine. What Lego did in the 1980s was start targeting boys. They had Zach the Lego Maniac, and they started licensing really boy-dominated lines. So you see the Star Wars, you see the DC Comics, the Marvel Comics characters, and they kind of forgot about girls. They deviated from that original, wonderful 1970s message of it’s for everyone and it’s beautiful no matter what it is, and now they are trying to recover from that. But instead of adding more girl figures to the “boy” line, they have introduced girl lines. It’s a separation and a segmentation rather than an embrace, and there are a lot of people who are concerned about the message that “these 10% of Legos are for girls and the other 90% are for boys.” We’ve got to bring everybody back together to the same table and maybe stop marketing to your segmented audiences as the lowest common denominator of gender. How about interest or passion or some other marker?
Knowledge at Wharton: But you think that if Mattel just dips its toe in the water and doesn’t go further, it can lose on a lot of fronts.
Hains: I think you have to commend them for taking the risk and being so boldly public about it that they’ve even gotten the Time cover story that was written by a journalist who felt like she was embedded there. They’re in a very, very precarious situation because they’re taking a risk to try to do something that would be seen as the right thing, but are they sincere about it? How big a risk is it really when it’s one line out of, what are there, two dozen Barbie lines now? It’s not a big risk.