The year was 1997.
“Un-Break My Heart” by Toni Braxton dominated the radio waves. Wallet chains and JNCO jeans were red-carpet staples. And plastic? It was fantastic.
Cool Shoppin’ Barbie wasn’t just made of plastic, she was the first ever doll to come with her very own piece of it. She came equipped with a cash register, bar code scanner, credit card reader, and two credit cards—a life-sized cardboard Mastercard, and a doll-sized plastic one.
In a year where a record 1.35 million Americans filed for personal bankruptcy, and the director of the nonprofit Consumer Federation of America was warning Americans in the red to “consider spending only what they can afford to pay off in a month or two”—or better yet, “make purchases by cash, check, or debit card”—Mattel, the toy company behind Barbie, used her to sell consumers on the fantasy of limitless shopping. Push a button, and the doll could say the magic words: “credit approved.”
“It’s so a child can really pretend,” said a spokesperson for Mattel at the time, in defense of its partnership with Mastercard International. “We thought it would be fun for her to run the card through the scanner.”
Cool Shoppin’ Barbie had a short run, which now makes her, among a certain set, a collector’s item. But today, the doll best serves as a particularly blunt object in the long history of Mattel’s marketing strategy to sell not the doll itself, but the lifestyle she promises.
In the lead-up to the first-ever live-action Barbie movie, Mattel has drilled this message home again and again, partnering with over 100 brands to sell us everything from Barbie burgers to Barbie toothbrushes. Life, Mattel wants to remind us, is better in Barbie pink. But the biggest way Mattel is signaling this message is through the high-profile summer tentpole itself. The first of Mattel’s new film arm, which can be seen as a feature-length commercial for Barbie, is a big gamble for the toy company. But it’s one that it has made before. From the very beginning, Mattel has made its name, and Barbie an icon, by selling her lifestyle to us directly on the screen.
As the story goes, after World War II, husband-and-wife team Ruth and Elliot Handler and their friend Harold “Matt” Matson began building doll furniture, and then toys, from scraps of leftover wood from their picture frame business. Early on, the company, a fusion of Matt and Elliot’s names, gained a reputation for selling musical toys, like the Uke-A-Doodle, a plastic ukulele. But Mattel really took off in 1955, when it had the opportunity to buy advertising on a new national children’s program, Walt Disney’s The Mickey Mouse Club. No one had used a major campaign to speak right to kids before. There had been national ad pushes, with the Erector Set becoming the first to get a major newspaper treatment in 1913. But unlike today, where companies spend nearly $17 billion a year marketing to kids and young adults, postwar marketers were only just beginning to treat children themselves as consumers. Becoming a commercial sponsor for a year would cost Mattel $500,000 upfront, but it meant directly reaching kids all across the country. It was a pricy gamble, but one that paid off big. That October, children tuning into ABC to watch “M-I-C-K-E-Y-M-O-U-S-E” were hit with advertisements for Mattel’s new Thunder Burp toy machine gun. The frenzy that followed created an epoch shift.
As Sydney Ladensohn Stern and Ted Schoenhaus put it in Toyland, their history of American toy companies, “Mattel’s decision to advertise toys to children on national television 52 weeks a year so revolutionized the industry that it is not an exaggeration to divide the history of the American toy business into two eras, before and after television.”
Were it not for The Micky Mouse Club, Barbie herself may never have become a phenomenon. Buyers had expressed little interest when Mattel brought its prototype to the 1959 American International Toy Fair. But the response was completely different when Mickey Mouse Club viewers got their first look at the 11-inch doll. As ad footage of Barbie and her accessories paraded across the screen, a woman’s voiceover said, “Barbie, beautiful Barbie, I’ll make believe that I am you.”
From the start, Barbie, in particular, was selling children not on a doll, but on an idea: You, yes you, could be Barbie. Kids demanded a Barbie of their very own to play out their fantasies, and Mattel sold more than 300,000 dolls that first year.
Mattel continued to find new ways to use television to reach its target demographic. In 1969, Bernard Loomis, a toy developer and marketer at the company, had the idea of looking beyond regular advertising and turning Mattel’s newest toy, Hot Wheels, into a Saturday morning cartoon. The strategy was an early attempt to channel what Loomis later famously referred to as “toyetics”—a media property’s power to create and sell toys.
Loomis understood that companies would one day sell toys through branded, popular entertainment, but he was ahead of the times. After the Federal Communications Commission received a complaint from a rival toy company against the Hot Wheels animated show, it concluded that it was a “program-length commercial,” under the rationale that the programming was woven “so closely with the commercial message that the entire program must be considered commercial.” The FCC required ABC to log parts of the show, including the theme song and audio and video references to the words “Hot Wheels,” as commercial advertising, and the program was soon canceled.
It took until the 1980s for toyetics to be fully unleashed when FCC deregulation opened the doors for what one member of Congress termed the “video equivalent of a ‘Toys-R-Us’ catalog” to hit TV screens. The term toyetics was, at this point, already in circulation. Loomis is said to have coined it while discussing merchandising rights for Close Encounters of the Third Kind. He’d decided to pass because he said the film wasn’t “toyetic” enough. What was toyetic enough? George Lucas’ new space opera.
Extending the Star Wars experience out of the movie theater and into the toy store opened the door for intellectual property to march its way into Hollywood. And now, with the launch of Mattel Films, Mattel is hoping to use Barbie to try and write the next chapter of this history.
From the dizzying heights of ’90s Barbie mania (Cool Shoppin’ Barbie, incidentally, came out during the year Barbie sales were at their zenith), Barbie’s cultural capital sagged in the 21st century. Like with The Mickey Mouse Club gamble, Mattel is hoping the new Barbie film will directly reach, and sell, a new generation on her story. But this time around, the company is hoping not just kids, but also adults buy into the idea of Barbie. In the long list of promotional collaborations, Mattel has been going after older age groups, partnering with brands such as the dating app Bumble to expand its customer base. The movie, too, is being marketed for all ages. “Everybody can have their own experience, and that’s the beauty of it. It’s kind of for everyone,” Ryan Gosling, who plays Ken, told Reuters, during the L.A. world premiere.
Early reports seem to suggest that Mattel’s bet will once again pay off. According to box office estimates, Barbie is on pace to take in at least $130 million over the weekend. Even in a moment when Americans are spending less, it seems Barbie is still able to sell us on the plastic life.