Sunday, December 10, 2006

CHICAGO (AP) — Barbie has had her ups and downs. She has achieved iconic status while undergoing multiple alterations to her figure, face and wardrobe. She has survived a public breakup with Ken and withstood fierce competition from other dolls who have snagged some of her market share.

Sales also have slumped in recent years, as they did at the beginning of the women’s movement in early 1970s, when “girls weren’t supposed to just go to the prom and marry Ken,” said Chris Byrne, an independent toy consultant.

Yet somehow, as she always does, Barbie has managed to bounce back, and not just because she is made of rubbery plastic.

Mattel Inc., which makes Barbie, says sales so far this year have been up for the first time in several years. One survey of parents conducted by the National Retail Federation found that Barbie is the top toy for girls this holiday season. (TMX Elmo was first for boys.)

So what is it about Barbie? How, nearly 50 years after Mattel introduced her, has she managed to thrive, especially in a time when classic toy makers have found themselves scrambling to attract new audiences?

Ask a girl who plays with Barbie, and you will get this kind of answer:

“I always wanted to grow up to be like a Barbie. I don’t know why, but she’s kind of cool,” said Cassidy Moock, a fifth-grader in Lorton, Va., who has had Barbies since she was little and still plays with a Barbie styling head to practice hair and makeup. “She has her own house. She’s got cool clothes, better than when my mom had them.”

In other words, part of Barbie’s charm, and Mattel’s success with her, has come from an ability to keep up with the times.

“Barbie has consistently reinvented herself,” said Mr. Byrne, who is based in New York.

She has evolved, for instance, from a cat-eyed girl in a bathing suit in 1959 to a go-go dancer, a tanned beach bum and eventually a career woman whose resume includes presidential candidate, rock star, astronaut and World Cup soccer player. There also have been black and Hispanic Barbies and those that have represented more than 45 nationalities.

More recently, Mattel has tapped into younger girls’ fascination with fairies and princesses, with lines known as “Fairytopia” and “12 Dancing Princesses.” Another new Barbie — the “Chat Diva” — carries a toy cell phone and can lip sync and bop her head to music when an IPod is plugged in.

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