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Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Brand idea failures: Earring Magic Ken

When Barbie’s boyfriend came out of the closet

Among toys, Mattel’s Barbie is something of a legend. Since her arrival on the scene at the annual Toy Fair in New York in 1959, Barbie has appealed to several different generations of girls. One of the keys to her longevity has been her ability to move with the times. In the 1980s, for instance, Barbie wore shoulder pads and became an aerobics instructor. According to the Barbie Web site, she has always set a successful example: ‘She has been a role model to women as an astronaut, a college graduate, a surgeon, a business executive, an airline pilot, a presidential candidate and a dentist.

However, on her road to international superstardom Barbie has experienced a number of setbacks. For instance, when the doll launched in Japan sales were poor owing to the fact that Japanese parents thought her breasts were too large. Mattel addressed the problem and a year later a flatter-chested version emerged.

Then there’s Ken, Barbie’s perma-tanned boyfriend. Like Barbie herself, Ken has been made over a number of times since his ‘birth’ in 1961. The most controversial of these incarnations occurred in 1993 with the arrival of ‘Earring Magic Ken’ or, as he became publicly known, ‘New Ken.’ This was, to put it mildly, a radical new look for the doll. Gone were the tuxedos of old, and in came a mesh t-shirt, a purple leather vest and a left-side earring.

It would seem Mattel’s crack Ken redesign team spent a weekend in LA or New York, dashing from rave to rave, taking notes and Polaroids,’ one journalist wrote at the time of the launch.

Mattel explained that the new look was an effort to bring Ken up to date.

‘We did a survey where we asked girls if Barbie should get a new boyfriend or stick with Ken,’ explained Lisa McKendall, Mattel’s manager of marketing and communications. ‘They wanted her to stay with Ken, but wanted him to look. . . cooler.’

However, pretty soon ‘New Ken’ was being dubbed ‘Gay Ken’. The New York Times, CNN, People magazine and talk-show host Jay Leno saw the doll as a symbol of shifting gender and sexual identities and values. Ken, whose apparent purpose in life was to help define the conventional ideal of masculinity for generations of young girls, had apparently come out of the closet.

This hadn’t been Mattel’s intention. ‘Ken and Barbie both reflect mainstream society,’ said Lisa McKendall. ‘They reflect what little girls see in their world – what they see their dads, brothers and uncles wearing they want Ken to wear.’

Of course, Mattel was now positioned ‘between a rock and a hard place’.

A ‘gay’ doll aimed at children was not going to do them any favours among middle America. However, if they acted too appalled by the associations they risked being accused of homophobia.

Crunch-time came when columnist Dan Savage published an article for gay-oriented newspaper The Stranger, which said that ‘Earring Magic Ken’ included too many signifiers of gay culture for it to be coincidental. ‘Remember the sudden appearance of African-American Barbie-style dolls after the full impact of the civil rights movement began to be felt?’ Savage asked his readers. ‘Queer Ken is the high-water mark of, depending on your point of view, either queer infiltration into popular culture or the thoughtless appropriation of queer culture by heterosexuals.’

Savage went even further, slamming Mattel’s statement that Ken was representative of the relatives of the little girls who took part in the research:

‘What the little girls were seeing, and telling Mattel was cool, wasn’t what their relations were wearing – unless they had hip-queer relatives – but the homoerotic fashions and imagery they were seeing on MTV, what they saw Madonna’s dancers wearing in her concerts and films and, as it happens, what gay rights activists were wearing to demos and raves,’ he wrote.

Following this article, and the interest it caused, Mattel discontinued the Ken dolls and recalled as many as they could from the shelves. Ken’s brush with controversy was now over and Barbie could sleep easier knowing her boyfriend was still interested in her.


Lesson from Earring Magic Ken

  • Research children’s markets carefully. Mattel asked five-years-olds how they wanted Ken to look. And they told them. But that didn’t mean parents were going to buy the new-look Ken dolls when they finally emerged.

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