Barbie Does Diversity: A cultural step-change, or just a brand playing catch-up with its consumers?
In case you missed it, we are republishing some of our most popular stories this summer. Barbie in a wheelchair and Barbie with Down syndrome - There's a Barbie for everyone, almost
Barbie’s journey to inclusivity began in 1967 when it released its first Barbie of colour called ‘Colored Francie’. But It was not till 2015 that Barbie made it their purpose to be more inclusive and relatable.
During a Conversation at Inkwell Beach at Cannes Lions 2023, Mattel president and COO Richard Dickson spoke about 2015 being a tough year: "The business was declining and the love affair with Barbie was waning." Mattel studies showed moms and girls didn’t find Barbie relatable anymore. This led to Mattel moving from a "monologue to a dialogue with consumers”.
The brand’s response was to transform the doll range into a “mirror image of the real world”. They did this by launching Barbies of 22 ethnicities, 35 skin tones, 97 hairstyles, 9 body types...and counting.
To add to this, Mattel announced on this Spring the addition of The Down syndrome Barbie to Barbie’s highly inclusive and highly successful doll line Fashionista.
To ensure accurate representation, Barbie worked closely with the National Down Syndrome Society (NDSS). “This means so much for our community, who for the first time can play with a Barbie doll that looks like them," said Kandi Pickard, NDSS President and CEO. "This Barbie serves as a reminder that we should never underestimate the power of representation."
To add to this, Lisa McKnight, Executive Vice President and Global Head of Barbie & Dolls at Mattel, said: “Our goal is to enable all children to see themselves in Barbie, while also encouraging children to play with dolls who do not look like themselves.”
But it took Barbie 65 years to get to this point; still, Barbie’s evolution is a lesson and an inspiration for brands trying to be more inclusive and diverse. So what does the diversity and inclusion of Barbie's world say about consumer cultures of today? We got chatting with the industry to find out.
Michael Alhadeff, Senior Strategist, AMV BBDO and Disability Access Ambassador (DAA) for the advertising industry, UK Government
Without sounding too much of a sycophant, the story of modern Barbie started with some very clever people at sister agency BBDO New York back in 2015.
They realised that the brand seemed increasingly out of touch and knew that Barbie needed repositioning. What followed was not just advertising, or even marketing success, but also cultural success.
Because no brand exists in a cultural vacuum, and the team recognised that if Barbie were to be a success again, it needed to be more reflective of the modern world. A world where everyone wasn’t tall, skinny, and blonde, but came in different shapes and sizes, including those having a disability.
It was a classic example of consumers voting with their wallets. Barbie either had to change or die. And that goes to show that inclusivity isn’t just a nice to have or something to put in an annual report but can often represent a commercial necessity.
That commercial necessity didn’t just mean changing the advertising, but changing the very product itself, as evidenced by the many different Barbies now available. Again, it wasn’t just a good thing to do, it opened the market up for Barbie as more people found her relatable.
So, the question is, where to go next? And I think the answer lies in going even deeper into the product. It is great that Barbie now looks more representative, but how easy is she to play with? For example, those with dexterity issues may find it a bit fiddly. Or could a new tactile version be made for those with a visual impairment?
But that’s maybe for the next 10 years…I for one am super excited about the Barbie movie this week!
(Again, a testament to the enduring appeal of the brand.)
Melody Sylvester, Chief Production Officer, TBWA
Who wouldn’t welcome increased inclusivity in all aspects of everyday life?
With Barbie fever rampant, and the movie about to hit the cinemas, there is talk around Mattel’s intentions to redesign the iconic doll to look more like ‘us’. They want the doll to be more inclusive and serve as a “mirror image of the real world”. There are Barbies with Afro hairstyles, Prosthetic limbs, and recently with Down Syndrome characteristics. Mattel's commitment to encourage children to play with Barbies that look like them and also that do not look like them is laudable and appreciated.
Inclusive representation on the market shelf is most welcome, but true representation in the boardrooms of these multi-million dollar institutions is what’s really required to move the dial. Call me when the C-suite at Mattel matches their ambition for the dolls they want our children to play with.
Then we may truly have something to applaud.
Aparna Bangur, Strategy Director, BBH London
Diversity in the toy box has been addressing the multiracial and multicultural spectrum for years. As parents — and consumers — we shape the culture we want. We actively seek out and support brands that align with our values. Barbie’s evolution is reflective of this powerful shift in consumer expectations, where inclusivity is not optional but necessary, equally at work and play. Personally, I believe inclusivity benefits society as a whole. People with disabilities contribute much to culture: their positivity, accomplishments, determination, and purity. There’s so much to celebrate. In upholding the dignity of those who are differently abled, we uplift all people. It’s time consumer culture bends back to humanity.
Randell Beckford, Senior Strategist, Atomic London
There’s no doubt that consumers today are demanding more representation. Barbie is one of many brands choosing to respond to this.
Right now, inclusivity makes business sense. With 89% of Gen Z saying they would rather purchase from a brand who aligns with their values, Mattel is taking the necessary steps to appeal to the parents of tomorrow and secure its bottom line.
The question is whether Mattel’s product innovation benefits the many or the few? It’s fair to acknowledge that not everyone values or needs more representation but, if I speak from a personal standpoint, I remember getting my first black barbie and I can tell you that finally having a doll that looked like me was a gamechanger for my confidence that I didn’t even know I needed.
Toys are a crucial part of development and the best way for children to see the world for all that if offers is by giving them diverse tools to fuel their imagination. So, though I’m wary of heralding Barbie as the beacon of inclusivity, they should be commended for listening to what customers want and taking important steps towards change.
Dr Rodney Collins, EVP, Global Head of Human Sciences, McCann Worldgroup.
Barbie has arguably always been ahead of mainstream culture, whether by virtue of her fashion options or the message of female empowerment that she has offered to girls. Of course, that has come with limits, bound by her historical and cultural origins as well as a bias that took Mattel nearly 60 years to overcome. Richard Dickson, COO of Mattel, recently spoke to audiences at the Cannes Lions Festival about this bias and the almost catastrophic stumble that Barbie faced in 2015. So much has gone well for Barbie throughout her history that the brand had failed to register what has always been an ugly, uncomfortable truth about the doll: in her ambitions for female empowerment, she has simultaneously perpetuated standards of beauty and success that are not only exclusionary, but also impossible to achieve.
Barbie and Mattel, of course aren’t alone in this reckoning. All brands that touch the lives of children undergo a correction. We have all seen the poignant clips of children reacting to the trailers from the Little Mermaid. There is something magical in witnessing the delight and wonder of these children, but we also know that those reactions are indicators of a deeper sense of belonging and connection that has immeasurable impact on the future potential of these children. Extensive scholarly research in the human sciences has demonstrated the outsized impact of positive representation for all dimensions of identity, from race to gender/sexual identity to disability.
Nevertheless, we know from our own global Truth Central research that 73% of people with disabilities globally continue to believe “the portrayal of people with disabilities in the media is outdated” (vs. 60% of non-disabled people). These shortcomings in representation are very likely a contributing factor to the some of the other findings that we have when it comes to the views of the global disabled population. A startling piece of data is almost half of people with disabilities globally say, “I’m more insecure about my looks than I was 5 years ago”, that is, 46% vs 35% of non-disabled people. Something isn’t working. It’s unsurprising then to learn that 60% of people with disabilities globally prefer stores online selling products directly to them, and this rises to 69% of people with neurological impairments and 71% of people with learning disabilities.
But this is more than an issue that matters to people from specific underrepresented backgrounds, profiles, or abilities. The majority of people tell us that the key to building a stronger society, coming up with a creative idea, or a more effective workforce is to bring together people who think and look different – and this has risen not fallen in recent years. Of course, we also know that issues of diversity have catalysed a noisy minority in countries around the world. This backlash to progressive identity politics should not only be expected but the frontline should be held especially by brands. 73% of people globally tell us that they believe that brands have a responsibility to promote diversity.
When I was a 9-year-old boy playing with my sister, I did not stop to think about the potential of a Barbie that would speak to me as a specific type of kid. At the time, the dolls were a portal to a fantasy world, just as my Matchbox sports cars were. In my case, it’s difficult to say whether the availability of a LGBTQIA+ Barbie of mixed ethnic background would have made a difference in my journey. But it’s increasingly evident from consumer data such as that we have gathered at Truth Central, but also from the rigour of the scientific record, that representation not only matters, but is essential in terms of catalysing marketing potential but also societal progression.
Kat Breadon, experience catalyst and member of ‘Access All Areas’ employee resource group for all things disability and accessibility, Wunderman Thompson
Disability representation has been gaining momentum across industries in recent years. This shift towards inclusivity can be partly attributed to cultural and psychological changes within a new generation of consumers. According to McKinsey research, Gen Z values authenticity and transparency from brands, seeking genuine and relatable content. They are also the most diverse generation in history and are defined by their ‘radical inclusivity’; representation is a non-negotiable for this generation and they aren’t afraid to call out brands that fall short on diversity and inclusion. The internet has, of course, played a pivotal role in this movement, fostering online community and visibility for disabled creators, who can now build their own grassroots platforms to voice their preferences. As market demand is shaped by these influencers, larger brands are taking notice and embracing the call for inclusivity.
The ability to participate in culture is an experience that those without disabilities often take for granted. Mattel’s new Barbie was launched with the help of British model Ellie Goldstein, who said “I am so happy that there is a Barbie with Down syndrome. Diversity is important to me as people need to see more people like me out there in the world and not be hidden away.” And the knock-on effects of visibility can be huge; moral psychologist Jon Haidt observed that the sharp increase in the acceptance of gay marriage in the early 2000s was fostered, in part, by the popularity of the sitcom Will & Grace. People who otherwise had never met a gay person developed affection, empathy and understanding for characters on screen, which shaped their attitudes towards LGBTQ+ in real life. The commercial success of a sitcom about the lives of gay people also generated more opportunities for LGBTQ+ creators and their stories.
Brands can fill the void for those who may not have personal encounters with disabled individuals, fostering awareness, curiosity, and empathy that can ripple into broader social transformation. In the wake of the inclusivity wave, legacy brands that champion representation not only resonate with the values of Gen Z but show their willingness to adapt and change. By embracing this cultural shift, brands have the opportunity to make a profound impact on individuals' lives and drive positive change on a larger scale.
Bee Pahnke, Head of Voice, Grey London
When I was growing up, the world told me Barbie was the epitome of a perfect woman. And I believed it. She had a literal Dreamhouse. Barbie fell in love, Barbie had a convertible, Barbie was a doctor, Barbie was a dancer, Barbie was a gymnast – Barbie was perfect. And Barbie always had a teeny tiny waist, bright blonde hair, sparkly blue eyes, and creamy pale skin. I looked nothing like Barbie. But I desperately wished I did.
Fast forward to 2023, and the Barbie landscape looks very different. We have Barbies with Down syndrome, prosthetic legs, disabilities, afro hair, different skin tones, and different sizes. Now, there are Barbies that look like me. In the 65 years of Barbie history, the dolls they’ve created over the last decade are hailed as revolutionary.
Except, they’re not.
The world has always had beautiful, perfect people with Down syndrome, with afros, with disabilities, with visible differences, with curves. But now we’re finally reflecting them in fantastic plastic. So what’s changed?
Consumers have more power now than we ever have before. We have an abundance of choice for almost every purchase we make. There are small businesses just a click away that will make parents a custom not-quite-Barbie doll that looks just like their child – or, that looks the complete opposite, to celebrate the vast spectrum of beauty. Barbie may be the It Girl. But she’s not the only girl.
We can choose the culture we consume, no longer limited to a handful of TV channels or the Top 40. I grew up hearing Kate Moss say 'nothing tastes as good as skinny feels', now I watch Lizzo’s Watch Out for the Big Grrrls celebrating bodies like mine in a way I wish the younger me could see.
Consumers flex their power and show their values through their money, their clicks, their time – and the businesses that survive are the ones that listen. Like Pinterest prohibiting all weight loss ads. Instagram giving users a choice over the type of ads they see. And now, Barbie expanding their range to cover a breadth of diversity.
When a big brand makes a move like this, we’re used to hearing tired suggestions that diversity & inclusion have gone too far. But the reality is, if brands don’t go where consumers’ values are, consumers will just go elsewhere. Because the choices a brand makes about the products they stock and the ways they operate are just as much a reflection of their values as the consumers’ choices are.
Alex Horner, Strategy Director and a member of the agency's DEI Collective, VCCP London
I’ll admit to being somewhat split in my thinking on this one - not in terms of the need for greater representation of course, which benefits many and harms no one - but in terms of the press Mattel consistently generates for releasing Barbies that don’t look like the prototypical version released way back in the late 50s.
On the one hand, additional media exposure for those in under-represented communities is surely a good thing. You’d hope that the more people are talking about and exposed to these kinds of topics, the more normalised and accepted they become.
On the other hand, we need to ask ourselves why it is that releasing a Barbie of this ilk still produces the level of media interest that it does. To put a particularly cynical hat on, you might argue that Mattel is releasing them purely because they know the additional PR will help boost their salience and ultimately drive sales. Given their longstanding history in this space though, I’d encourage you to take said hat back off. What remains telling is that diversity, even when represented by a doll, is still considered radical enough to generate headlines.
Perhaps then, there’s a bigger picture story we can look at here. Why don’t we use Barbie, the cultural phenomenon that she is, as a litmus test for knowing that we’ve reached true inclusion in society? When the day eventually comes that Mattel releases a non blonde, white, skinny Barbie that doesn’t garner the attention of the media, that’s when we’ll know inclusion is truly embedded in the culture.
Josh Bullmore, Chief Strategy Officer, Leo Burnett London and Board Member, Publicis Groupe’s employee action group enAble.
I’m very jealous of Barbie. Her Dream House is awesome. When I picked up my son from a play date this week I was wowed by the amazing rooms spread across three generously sized floors. (I want a disco with a light up wall!)
How do Barbie, Ken and the crew get between these floors? In an accessible lift. It’s a wonderful win-win - more space inside for those dreamy rooms, and everyone gets to enjoy them.
This is a Barbie-themed example of the broader truth that everyone wins from inclusivity.
Marginalised communities and wider society win. Recent research shows that, given a choice, most people avoid contact with disabled people because they feel dauntingly different. It’s a vicious cycle where the less we see disabled people, the more we avoid them, and so on. Greater representation, from toys to TV, reduces disabled people’s isolation and enriches everyone’s lives.
Brands also win through inclusivity. Using PopIndex (our proprietary quant research tool) we explored what pulls high-performing brands away from their competitors. We were surprised to find that it is the extent to which a brand is seen as being inclusive of all of society. Inclusivity seems to be the defining characteristic of successful, populist brands.
Inclusivity needs to be approached with sensitivity, of course. Through our DE&I approach The Everyone Way, we partner with experts like Diversity Standards Collective to ensure our work works for both the community involved and the wider audience.
In short, inclusivity is a win-win-win. So it’s not just the right thing, it’s also the commercially smart thing for a brand to do.
Kate Rowlinson, CEO, EssenceMediacom UK
It’s fantastic to see that Mattel is creating Barbie dolls that resonate with humanity in a broader sense. I have no doubt that this will be meaningful for many kids. While Barbie has come to be seen as something that represents those too-high standards of beauty for women, the reality is the brand has poured resources and effort into making its toys more diverse, with multiple body shapes, ethnicities, and abilities represented. The upcoming movie is a chance for Mattel to spotlight its new positioning to parents who remember the unattainable Barbie ideals of their youth, with a diverse cast that will help solidify Barbie as a toy fit for modernity.
Ella Britton, Strategy Director, Total Media
The rebranding of Barbie reflects a cultural shift towards diversity and the growing demand for representation in toys and media. While this demand may be driven by those directly impacted, it is valued by a much broader audience that wants to see themselves and their experiences represented by the brands they engage with. This is especially true of younger generations who are more likely to support companies that align with their values and are committed to social progress. The journey towards inclusivity continues to evolve as companies are challenged to meet changing demands, and the Barbie rebrand highlights the importance of embracing diversity in today’s consumer culture.
Debbie Ellison, Global Chief Digital Officer, VMLY&R Commerce
Dolls today aren’t just a reflective mirror of who is playing with them, they're also a projection of what we want to see in our society. In a recent YouGov report, 53% of toy buyers said it’s important to them that toys represent all parts of society. Another 56% said that toys should overtly support diversity and inclusion issues. Today, the Barbie brand address both needs with a bullseye. Since the rebrand in 2015, gross sales of Mattel’s Barbie brand increased by over 0.5bn USD. Representation it seems isn’t just a nice to have – it’s also business imperative.