A Conversation With Barbie: Missteps and Moving Forward

Recently toy giant Mattel received heavy criticism for a book that was part of the 2010 launch of the Barbie I Can Be….A Computer Engineer career doll. As the internet found out this week, much to our surprise, in the book Barbie actually does zero computer engineering. In fact, as the story plays out we see Barbie framed as rather incompetent when it comes to tech. To make matters worse, Barbie calls on two male friends to come and save the day. The fact that the book was written by a female computer engineer makes the situation all the more incredulous.

Things went really wrong with this book, and Mattel did a good job of owning it with this statement posted to their facebook page:

“The Barbie I Can Be A Computer Engineer book was published in 2010. Since that time we have reworked our Barbie books. The portrayal of Barbie in this specific story doesn’t reflect the Brand’s vision for what Barbie stands for. We believe girls should be empowered to understand that anything is possible and believe they live in a world without limits. We apologize that this book didn’t reflect that belief. All Barbie titles moving forward will be written to inspire girl’s imaginations and portray an empowered Barbie character.” 

Barbie is a lot of things to a lot of people. She’s polarizing and inspiring. She’s a glamorous beauty and she’s a ground breaking career girl. She’s also in the the homes of millions of little girls.

While the internet has done an amazing job of responding to and re-framing  this misstep by the brand I was interested in a deeper conversation. I think the problems were well covered by others so I wanted to focus on a few key points:

  • Do they understand the issues facing girls who want to pursue STEM interests and careers? Do they understand how this book fed into those issues as opposed to fighting them in an empowering way for girls?
  • How did this book get past the review process and make it to print? Where were the checks and balances?
  • Moving forward, how will Mattel work to stay aware of girls’ issues and reflect that knowledge through truly empowering toys and media for young consumers?

This brings us to the perfect time for me to issue the disclaimer that despite being a frequent critic of the brand, I was invited to participate in a play experiment called The Barbie Project. It was a role I accepted, have enjoyed with my daughter, and a role I used to get my questions answered by Barbie’s Lori Pantel Vice President, Global Brand Marketing. There are a lot of moving pieces to such a large brand like Barbie, and each of those pieces is a human being. When we peel back the layers and open a conversation with each of those people in a way that moves the issue forward, we move closer towards the goal of creating meaningful change for our kids.

My interview with Barbie’s Lori Pantel Vice President, Global Brand Marketing:

1. The first question on everyone’s mind is, how did this get past the review process at Mattel and become published? Each time there is a media whirlwind around an offending product that is the one question I see over and over again. We know Barbie is aware of the issues surrounding girls and STEM, but this book does not reflect that. Can you help us backtrack and understand the process for developing a product like this book? And what are the checks and balances? 

When we first learned of this earlier in the week, to be honest, we were horrified & disappointed because this doesn’t reflect our vision for the brand.  We believe that girls can do anything and be anything.  And as a Mom myself, I take this vision very seriously.

To better answer the “How did this happen”? We spent the early part of the week digging in to the how & why because: 1. We wanted to identify where our process of checks and balances broke down.  2. To ensure it never happens again.

Our publishing process has changed since this book was first released in 2010.  

In 2010 our process for content publishing was that we worked with licensed partners around the world and they were given “story starters” and plot themes.  Those themes were then given to independent writers to create age appropriate books for young readers.  While most of the Barbie books do a good job of reflecting the brand values and positioning, we run the risk of misinterpretation and ultimately loss of quality control.  Clearly, we do not want this to ever happen again. Over the past year we have changed the strategy. Today, instead of asking others to interpret our brand, we now concept, write, and approve all stories for publishing here at Mattel. 

In light of this week’s learnings, we have started to audit all of our current publishing content that is available now in the marketplace.

 

2. I’ve been a critic of Barbie in the past, and even during my time on The Barbie Project I’ve talked about the dual nature of the doll as I see both positive and negative aspects. Clearly, I’m not a fan of this book. Has it been pulled?

The short answer is yes, the book has been pulled by Random House. The minute we learned of this title and read the content, we immediately partnered with Random House to pull the book from the market.   

 

3. So, as my daughter says, you are ‘Barbie’s Boss’, which is her understanding of your role at Mattel. For the little girls out there who want to be the boss some day, what would you tell them about being the boss when a fumble like this happens at work and how do you show your team good leadership?

That’s very sweet, but I actually don’t think of myself as “Barbie’s Boss.”  I believe that part of good leadership is taking responsibility – facing the challenge head on and using it as a learning moment. I would tell your daughter that we are all human. And at times will make mistakes – but what is most important is how we learn and grow from them. 

 

4. There are a lot of moving pieces to a large brand, and those pieces are people who are a part of our culture. This book wasn’t too far off from what real girls and women experience in everyday culture. I can see how creators might overlook things they were never taught to question. What I see as I travel and speak to groups is that ‘you don’t know what you don’t know.’ So, now that Barbie knows better how will Barbie do better in the future?

Over the past few years the brand has partnered with 3rd party experts as it relates to our Career of the Year programs. Whether NASA for "Barbie as Astronaut" or a diverse group of entrepreneurs this past summer for the launch of Entrepreneur Barbie. The brand engages in these partnerships to ensure authenticity in both the doll design and program content. We will continue to explore these types of partnerships when exploring new areas for the brand.

We believe that Barbie unlocks a girl’s imagination. And that through open-ended play, Barbie invites girls to explore the world around them. We know it is critically important to not only listen to girls but also to listen to and learn from parents. That’s what we are doing now and will continue to do going forward.

 

I really appreciate Lori Pantel taking the time to answer these questions. Authentic communication with brands is a best first step in bringing about the changes we would like to see. As I continue to fill my role on The Barbie Project I will use every opportunity to encourage the brand to continue to move in the direction of empowered, diverse play for girls. Here is what I would hope to see the brand take away from this week of negative press and use it as a learning experience and catalyst for change:

  • Rewrite and publish the computer programming book. Just reboot the project and get it done right. Engage with women from STEM fields or groups who teach girls to code. Best yet: Have the girls in these coding/engineering groups team with Mattel to write a new version of the book they know will inspire little girls.
  • Reach out to advocates and experts who work to empower girls. Use our knowledge and consultations to guide decisions during the creative and development process.
  • Truly commit to showing girls all of Barbie’s careers are within reach through interactive web pages and product packing. Highlight women in those careers, much like the Barbie I Can Be…..An Entrepreneur site does. Then replace the two craft projects with a road map to developing a working business plan and a template for business cards. The Barbie Computer Engineer could come with an app where girls can get code from the inside of the doll’s package they input into the app to design the robot puppy they saw Barbie bring to life in the code *she successfully wrote and programmed* in the new book.
  • Pledge to keep Barbie as the protagonist in all of her stories. Let girls see her doing the problem solving, going on the adventures, and saving the day. Introduce new friends along the way, but keep Barbie in a position of power and leadership.

 

And what, dear reader, should your take away be? Let’s remember this is one conversation in what needs to be an ongoing conversation. As you read, think about how you want that conversation shaped, who you want heard, and how best to deliver your messages.

Computer Engineer Barbie

Computer Engineer Barbie