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'The Indicator From Planet Money' Investigates Barbie's Transformation

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

What does it take to transform a brand? We're talking of a brand that seems a bit tarnished but whose owners consider it too big to fail. Barbie. Stacey Vanek Smith with The Indicator From Planet Money investigates this transformation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

STACEY VANEK SMITH: Between 2011 and 2015, Barbie sales dropped by a third. Kelly Gilblom is an entertainment reporter at Bloomberg News. And for Mattel, says Kelly, this was a full-on crisis.

KELLY GILBLOM: People say, you know, however Barbie goes, that's how Mattel goes.

VANEK SMITH: Mattel's CEO ordered a big sweeping consumer study about Barbie, and the responses were not pretty. People thought Barbie was vapid and shallow. And then there was all the stuff about Barbie's body.

GILBLOM: There were studies that were coming out that were saying if Barbie was expanded into human size, she wouldn't have enough room for a liver and she wouldn't be able to hold her head up.

VANEK SMITH: Those things feel important.

GILBLOM: (Laughter).

VANEK SMITH: Mattel went into full crisis mode.

LISA MCKNIGHT: Barbie - she's too big to fail.

VANEK SMITH: This is Lisa McKnight, global head of Barbie at Mattel. She came on board at Barbie's darkest hour.

MCKNIGHT: The stakes were high and of course, we knew we needed diversity.

VANEK SMITH: In 2015, Lisa and her team introduced a new line of Barbie fashionista dolls.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Can't resist a fashionista.

VANEK SMITH: Traditionally, the fashionista dolls had been almost all white with long, straight hair. The new line of two dozen dolls had eight different skin tones and some curly hair options, but they were all still the lean, liverless Barbies of yore. And Lisa says that was the next thing they looked at.

MCKNIGHT: We needed body diversity.

VANEK SMITH: In 2016, Mattel rolled out curvy Barbie, tall Barbie, petite Barbie, and Barbie sales started to pick up, so Lisa and her team pushed further. They released a Barbie who came with a wheelchair, a Barbie with the skin condition vitiligo. Remember, though, looks were only part of the issue. A lot of the problem had to do with Barbie's personality.

MCKNIGHT: She was viewed as too perfect, unrelatable. We started to have her become vulnerable.

VANEK SMITH: Mattel beefed up Barbie's YouTube channel, and an animated Barbie now does frequent video posts from her extremely pink bedroom. And then the pandemic hit. Kids were suddenly home from school, and parents began desperately buying toys and games and videos to entertain them. Demand for all things Barbie went nuts. Mattel also doubled down on Barbie's vlog. Barbie and all of her friends went into quarantine. They talked about wearing masks, missing their friends and even social issues.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Barbie) Hey, everybody.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Nikki) Hey, everyone.

VANEK SMITH: This is Barbie and her Black friend Nikki talking about the Black Lives Matter movement and racism.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Nikki) People might think that my life looks fine, but the truth is, I and so many other Black people have to deal with racism all the time. It's really hurtful, and it can be scary and sad. And I wanted to share some stories about that today.

VANEK SMITH: By the end of last year, Barbie's vlog had 10 million subscribers, and Mattel had sold nearly $1 1/2 billion worth of Barbies. And the inclusive Barbies were leading the pack. One of the top-selling Barbies of 2020 was the Barbie who came with the wheelchair. Another mega hit - a Maya Angelou Barbie made in honor of Black History Month. Stacey Vanek Smith, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BARBIE GIRL")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Singing) Come on, Barbie, let's go party.

TORI V: (Vocalizing). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.