Barbie, in a way, is like dog food. Neither a small child or a dog can take either product to the till and pay for it themsevles. In fact, neither can reliably articulate what they want and why they want it at all. It’s an unusual marketing challenge – aimed at convincing adult humans, that their canine or child would be really happy with them for buying it on their behalf.
Barbie has always had to ride this wave cleverly, appealing to Mothers as symbols of the womanhood that they want to their daughters to play with, learn from and presumably even mimic. In a more sedate, conservative and traditional age this was less of a challenge, but Mattel faced problems as society enjoyed the rise of feminism – with its celebration of women as they are, rather than as they are decreed to be, clashing with the anatomically impossible, blonde haired dolls.
If it was a challenge then, today in the millennial age, it is even tougher. As people begin to discuss and embrace gender as a fluid rather than binary concept, how do you sell a genderfluid doll to a parent who could easily feel uneasy about the breakneck breakdown of how we understand gender? How do you bridge the intergenerational chasm that rages in our shared, relentless culture war.
Their answer is brilliant. Instead of scaring their buyers with another disorientating display of genderless expression – they simply remind them that gender fluidity is not really a modern thing at all. Absolutely nobody today, from YouTube stars to DJs, has ever clawed at the limits of societies understanding of gender with more style, courage and acclaim than the late, great David Bowie. So, the Starwoman doll is born – both the radical gender bending icon for the young and the reassuring, nostalgic figure of one of Britain’s supreme icons for the old.
But have Barbie ticked both boxes and made a product that appeals to both the target audience, and the target audience’s target audience? Is this the first trail blazer in how companies with iconic, but potentially dated, products appeal to both generations? Only the sales figures, its cultural cut through and the reception from the targeted toddlers will tell – but it is certainly brave, clever and deserving of success.
Although communications strategy aside – I suspect that David Bowie, the man who turned his very life into high calibre art, would be quietly amused with his latest reincarnation.