- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 20, 2007

She has an enviable figure; a cute, on-again/ off-again boyfriend; and a wardrobe to die for. Barbie has been a model and a pilot, a princess, a surfer and a veterinarian. Most important, nearly 50 years since she debuted, Barbie is a survivor.

Like an aging homecoming queen who finds herself in a midlife crisis, Barbie — who dominated the fashion-doll shelves for decades — saw her sales figures fall for about five straight years before making a modest recovery last fall.

There are many reasons why Barbie isn’t the coolest girl in class anymore and why parent company Mattel is working to correct that. She has lots of competition, from high-tech toys as well as Bratz dolls. Bratz, with their multicultural look, glittery eye shadow and street-wise vibe, have been chipping away at Barbies’ sales since they were introduced in 2001.

“Bratz have taken away some of the market share among 7-to 9-year-olds,” says Jim Silver, editor of the magazine Toy Wishes — The Ultimate Guide to Family Entertainment. “Barbie got hurt in the older ages group. We don’t see Bratz with the 3- to 5-year-olds.”

Therein lies part of the problem. Barbie — once the teen doll that preteens played with — is now largely seen as a preschool toy.

“Instead of an 8-year-old playing with Barbie and rebelling against the little childhood things, Barbie became the doll you give your 2-year-old,” says Gary Cross, professor of history at Penn State University and author of the book “Kids’ Stuff: Toys and the Changing World of American Childhood.” “Girls don’t see Barbie as an act of rebellion anymore. They see her as a fairy princess.”

Mattel realizes this and has segmented the Barbie collection to have appeal to preschoolers (the Fairytopia collection), older girls (Fashion Fever) and even preteens (the My Scene collection).

“We take our inspiration for Barbie based on little girls today — how they’re playing, what they’re doing,” Chuck Scothon, head of Mattel’s girl’s division, says via e-mail from a Hong Kong toy meeting. “We communicate with girls and moms all over the world all year long.”

Jansi Patel of Ashburn is crazy about the Fairytopia and 12 Dancing Princesses collection of Barbies. At age 4, she is exactly the target audience Mattel is seeking — appreciating the Barbie brand early, then growing along with it.

Jansi and her mother, Jackie, were at the Sterling Toys R Us recently looking for the right Prince Derek doll to add to Jansi’s collection.

“We have about 12 Barbies,” Mrs. Patel says. “I grew up playing Barbies, but my older daughter didn’t like them. I was a little disappointed. I think Barbie is a great toy. We dress her up, and Jansi uses her imagination.”

The fight for the attention of girls like Jansi isn’t new. It is just more pronounced in this era of toys that “do” things, says Eric Clark, author of the book “The Real Toy Story.”

Barbie has struggled before. Sales slowed at the height of the women’s movement, when Barbie’s 2-inch waist and dream house seemed so shallow in a changing world where real-life women were urged to aim higher than just a date with Ken.

“Barbie has hit bottom before,” Mr. Clark says. “In the 1980s, Mattel hired new management, and they turned Barbie into a global brand.”

Mattel points out the Barbie brand is still going strong. The company estimates that 90 percent of American girls ages 3 to 10 own at least one Barbie. The National Retail Federation said in November that Barbie is the No. 1 toy for girls. Meanwhile, Barbie.com is among the top-five most-visited children’s Web sites, and Barbie DVDs routinely top the children’s video charts.

Still, Mattel is looking to capture the Barbie magic of a generation ago. The company cleaned house again last year, hiring new executives. The Barbie creative team brainstormed the doll’s new direction.

What the team came up with is a Barbie collection that stretches further across multimedia. Sure, there still will be the silent Barbies that just look fashionable in their teeny-tiny shoes. But now there are Chat Divas Barbies, who sing into a minuscule microphone. Girls also can plug in an IPod, and the dolls will move and lip-sync. Wedding Barbie features a ring that sparkles with a real light inside.

“In 2007, new products will bring Barbie to life like never before while addressing every way that girls play,” Mr. Scothon says. “For the first time ever, Barbie can ‘chat’ on her cell phone and ‘lip-sync’ to music, played via an IPod while bopping her head to the beat of the music.”

There also are roller-skating My Scene dolls that operate by remote control. In the Fairytopia collection, a doll acts by remote control in sync with a DVD.

“You fly her like a fairy,” Mr. Silver says. “On the DVD, she collects gems through Fairytopia. None of this takes away from Barbie, the teen doll with the hair down her back. It is just adding an electronic element. These are things that have not been done in the past.”

The biggest challenge will be getting back the 6-and-older crowd. The phenomenon that marketers call “kids growing older younger” can be seen in everything from clothing to shoes to hairstyles and, of course, playthings.

Mr. Scothon says the variety of Barbie products can appeal to a wide age span.

“We know girls are engaging with the Barbie brand into their late tweens,” he says. “In fact, older girls go from playing with Barbie dolls to playing on Barbie.com. They still love Barbie. Barbie-branded Web sites receive 57 million monthly visits worldwide, and Barbie.com ranks among the top five entertainment Web sites for girls ages 2 to 11. Girls want and deserve choices, and Barbie gives girls a play experience that addresses whatever they are into at any moment in time.”

Meanwhile, competition is increasing. Along with Bratz, there is “a slew of other girl products,” Mr. Silver says. Among them: Care Bears, My Little Pony, Strawberry Shortcake and the pricey American Girl dolls.

Mr. Cross says part of the reason Bratz have been successful is that they are marketed directly to the children, making them an “I’ve got to have that” toy. Meanwhile, Barbie has relied on tradition — moms buy Barbies for their daughters because they played with Barbies when they were girls.

“I don’t know what the appeal is with the Bratz,” says Wendy Ackerman of McLean. Mrs. Ackerman has five children, including girls ages 8, 10 and 13. The girls have both Barbies and Bratz. “I guess it is because they are more modern or hipper and not as old-fashioned. Sometimes I think Barbies are seen as little girlish or Disneyish.”

Mattel’s first stab at a hipper doll collection came in 2003, when the hip-hop-influenced Flava collection was introduced. The dolls did not sell well and also caused some backlash in among ethnic consumers, which saw the dolls as promoting negative stereotypes.

“The Flavas were attacked as way beyond anything that should have been pushed to young kids,” Mr. Clark says.

Capturing the older girls is up to the My Scene collection. There is the My Bling Bling doll’s Let’s Go Disco set, where the miniskirt-clad doll is ready to party. There is Chelsea Bling, who has superlong hair and a fashionable purse. There is a Too Cool Totally Posh Pool for the My Scene girls.

Some of those products are likely to find a place at Mrs. Ackerman’s house. Even with all the competition for her girls’ attention, Mrs. Ackerman estimates she has purchased 500 Barbies over the years.

So despite sales figures, Bratz and IPod plug-ins, Barbie, in her simplicity, seems to endure.

“The girls get them every Christmas,” she says. “One year, each of them got 10 dolls. Barbies are so much better than things like Nintendo. They will throw parties for the Barbies and play beauty shop. It allows them to use their imagination more instead of sitting in front of the TV.”

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