For over 50 years, American girls – and over time, those internationally as well – have grown up playing with Barbies. I have daughters, they play with them too. Just about every girl or woman I have spoken with and asked, has told me they played with Barbie, or at the very least had Barbie in the house. Barbie was first sold in 1959, and is still highly popular. They sold ~300,000 in 1959, and nearly 1BN (!) in 2012.
In the last several years, with greater awareness of eating disorders in both directions – growing obesity among Americans, as well as anorexia and bulimia – there has been increasing public pressure to make Barbie more realistic. Quite simply, the proportions of Barbie are idealized beyond the point of absurd. No woman could possibly have those proportions. The concern is that the idealized version of Barbie puts additional impossible-to-meet expectations on impressionable young girls and teens. Combined with media images of women and the belief in certain shapes as desirable, these girls may be “set up” for eating disorders, esteem and other serious issues in life.
Mattel has no interest in setting American girls up for failure. With a 50+-year-old franchise, they are aware that the perspectives of today’s mothers on their playing with Barbie – positive or negative, both short-term and long-term – directly impacts whether or not they buy Barbie for their daughters. Nonetheless, they are a business. They are acutely aware that toys, and Barbie especially, are fantasy. Most young women don’t have glamourous lives, have wardrobes of fashionable clothes and drive convertibles, any more than most boys will grow up to be Jedi Knights or Superman. The very point of toys is play, fantasy, a dreamworld. Mattel wants the right balance between fantasy play and positive long-term impact.
Enter the world of 3D printing. An artist has taken realistic dimensions of healthy young American woman, and created “Realistic Barbie.” The differences in the images between Mattel Barbie and Realistic Barbie are striking. And here is the opportunity.
3D printing gives Mattel the opportunity to make a trial run of Realistic Barbie at fairly low-cost. It has the opportunity to see if Realistic Barbie is fantasy enough to sell as a toy without risking high manufacturing expenses, and can give it an alternate name to avoid diluting the brand. Somehow, “Realistic Barbie” won’t quite carry in the market.
The opportunity to gauge market potential more accurately at much lower cost is a direct result of new technology properly applied. Most businesses can find these opportunities every single day. I hope Mattel takes advantage of it and truly finds out, via the free choice of parents and daughters, exercised in the free market, which mix of realism and fantasy the girls want.