The Barbie Phenomenon

The Barbie phenomenon took the world by storm. The creation of the eleven and onehalf-inch tall glam gal didnt begin at a large corporations drawing board, as some might think. She actually came straight from the hands of her loving parents, Ruth and Elliot Handler. The Mattel Corporation, founded by Ruth and Elliot Handler, has successfully marketed the Barbie doll for over four decades and still continues to sell the doll throughout the world. It is amazing the impact this childs toy has had in both the corporate boardroom and the toy room, and not only on children but also adults. Barbie has brought billons in sales to the bottom line of Mattel, and to adults around the world who have made substantial investments in Barbie collections. Interestingly enough, had it not been for the persistence of one woman, Barbie might never have been born.
Ruth Handler was born the youngest of ten children and began her career working as a stenographer at Paramount Pictures. Her husband, Elliot was born into a family with four brothers and worked as a light fixture designer before returning to school to get his art degree (Lord 20). In 1937 the couple decided to take their first big gamble in life. They both quit their jobs and moved from their home in Denver, Colorado, to start their own business in Southern California (Lord 18). They opened their own home-based business building plexi-glass furniture in their garage (West Interview). Soon after World War II began, the Handlers expanded their business into what used to be a laundromat, and hired workers to help in their new factory making jewelry, candle holders, and other plastic items (Lord 20). Then around 1945, Mr. and Mrs. Handler decided to expand their business once more. The couple began their own company, Mattel Creations with long-time family friend, Harold Mattson as their partner. Mr. Mattsons last name was mixed with Elliots to form the company name Mattel (Lord 20). With the end of the war came an increase in the use of plastic, and Mattel Creations first product, a plastic ukulele called the Ukedoodle hit the toy store shelves. The production of this new toy really helped set Mattels business in motion. After the ukulele, came a jack-in-the-box, which also brought much revenue to the company. Mattel was so successful that by 1950, the company had compiled a net-worth of nearly a half million dollars (Lord 20).

While Mattel Creations was busy celebrating the success of their famous ukulele and jack-in-the-box, a designer in Germany was diligently creating his own masterpiece; one that would greatly influence the design of the Barbie doll. A man named Reinhard Beuthien created a cartoon character named Lilli who appeared in the comic section of a German newspaper called Bild Zeitung. Soon after, this one-dimensional character called Lilli was transformed into a three-dimensional doll (Bad Girl 1). The doll that Mr. Beuthien produced was eleven and one-half-inches tall, flesh colored and beautifully painted (Lord 25). Her main personality traits included golddigger, exhibitionist, and floozy (Lord 25). However, Lilli was basically a sexy, adult male pornographic toy (Bad Girl 1)– not a childs role model or toy (Bad Girl 2). Back in the United States, Ruth started having ideas, while watching her daughter Barbara play with paper dolls, of designing a doll with a womans body. Her daughter wasnt just playing with the dolls; she was intently interacting with them (Lord 29-30). Ruth could see her daughter playing make believe in the land of adult life and thought an actual doll would be quite a phenomena (Lord 30).

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Some time later, while shopping on vacation in Switzerland, Mrs. Handler first saw the Lilli doll. She decided to buy three of the dolls, one for herself and two for her daughter (Bad Girl 2). Ruth really wasnt familiar with Lilli or what she represented, but in her, she saw the figure that she had been trying to capture for years, but was told couldnt be done (Lord 29). The doll was so important to her that when the men at the company told Mrs. Handler that the doll was too feminine to be made in the United States, she decided to begin construction somewhere else in the world. It was a year later, in 1957, when an electronic engineer finally took the Lilli doll to be redesigned in Japan (Lord 30). These important events helped to finally establish Ruth Handlers place in the doll world (Tosa 29). Named after Ruths own daughter, the dolls name was Barbara Joyce, or Barbie for short, and her much anticipated debut finally came in March of 1959 at New York Citys American Toy Fair (Tosa 30).

Barbies success relied heavily on how well her image matched market expectations and fashion trends for kids and adults (Hein 4). In the eye of the parents, she was a great toy (Hein 4). Barbie sent out positive images and sound virtue. She wore a seatbelt, became an astronaut, and ran for President (Hein 6), giving young girls dreams to strive for. Barbie also proved to be a very versatile doll as well. She was everything from a doctor to a firefighter, a paleontologist, and an athlete (Hein 9-10). Not only was Barbie smart, levelheaded, and sophisticated, but for the kids, she was just plain fun. She had a wide array of clothes and accessories, which allowed childrens imaginations to run wild all over the world (Hein 5). For the older generation, she was called a teen-age fashion model, and a new kind of doll from real life (Tosa 30). Through the decades as trends changed, so did Barbie. When the fashion magazines started showing girls with tattoos and bellybutton rings, Barbie started showing them too (Hein 10).
Equality for all wasnt just a real life thing; it was also seen in the Mattel world. Barbie produced its first African American doll in 1968 (Hein 7). Shortly thereafter, Mattel released a Spanish-speaking doll, then recently there was a release of a handicapped Barbie (Hein 7). All of these different Barbie dolls were made so that children, while playing with dolls, could begin to have real life experiences (Hein 6). This fantasyland/adult life idea, was one of the best ideas that Mattel had ever had, and the biggest selling point ever.
The Barbie doll sold so well its first year in production, that it took three full years to fill the orders (Long 17). Barbies popularity didnt soon die out either. By 1965 Mattel had sold more than one hundred million dollars worth of Barbie merchandise. By 1968, Mattel had Barbie factories in Germany, England, and Mexico, and distributors in Italy and Belgium (Lord 59). In 1964, amidst of all the fame and fortune of the new doll, times got tough and the company almost went broke as corporate marketing turned away from Barbie on other types of toys. Management began focusing more attention on electronic games than Barbie dolls, but the games did not sell well and the company lost a great deal of money (Lord 15). By 1981, however, Mattel was back on track with thirteen new Barbie dolls on the market. Today Barbie is more popular than ever with collectors and young girls alike. The average American girl under the age of eleven owns ten Barbie dolls (Barbie Overview1), and Mattel introduces more than one hundred new Barbie dolls each year!
Barbie is of course, still changing with the times and with the latest technology. She has new electronic games where players can choose to discuss careers, shopping, dating, or parties with her, and her own web site. She has also been the proud recipient of a brain (New Barbie 1). Talk with Me Barbie was just recently unveiled who can actually hold a conversation with a real human being. Barbie can now even wish a girl happy birthday, but she just cant seem to blow out the candles (New Barbie 1)– yet. What does this mere eleven and one-half-inch beauty mean to Mattel? The company realized over $1.5 billion in sales in 1999 in more than 150 countries worldwide (Barbie Overview1). And considering all of the books and videos marketed to attract the adult collectors that have grown up with Barbie over the last four decades, it doesnt look like her popularity is going to fade anytime soon.


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