Putting Barbie in Sports Illustrated's annual swimsuit issue is Mattel Inc.'s latest attempt to generate conversation about the 11.5-inch icon and reverse falling Barbie brand sales.
Mattel said Tuesday that Barbie, 54, will join the ranks of Tyra Banks, Christie Brinkley and Rachel Hunter in the magazine's 50th anniversary swimsuit issue, which goes on sale Feb. 18. Barbie will appear in a version of the black-and-white bathing suit she wore on her 1959 debut, the company said. The Time Inc. magazine and toymaker also rolled out an advertising campaign with the tagline "unapologetic."
Within hours of the announcement, a debate was raging on the Web and television. While some saw no controversy, others said the swimsuit issue demeans women and Barbie's unrealistic proportions send an unhealthy message to young girls.
"What year are we?" Sallie Krawcheck, the former Bank of America and Citigroup executive, said in an interview on Bloomberg Television. "It is a terrible message for young ladies. Appearance, we wish it didn't matter for women and men, but there is looking groomed and put together and there is having a look that no one in this entire world can ever attain. The airbrushing is ridiculous that goes on. Barbie's message should be strong, resourceful, that you work hard and you achieve something, not because of your looks."
The Barbie brand is struggling amid the growing popularity of Mattel's other top doll brands, Monster High, Disney Princess and American Girl. Last year, sales of girls brands excluding Barbie surged 25 percent. Meanwhile Barbie declined 6 percent. Global revenue from Barbie fell 13 percent in Mattel's most quarter, when the El Segundo, Calif.-based company posted revenue that trailed analysts' estimates.
The partnership with Sports Illustrated encourages women to be who they are, Michelle Chidoni, a Mattel spokeswoman, said in an emailed statement.
"As a legend herself, Barbie has always been a lightning rod for controversy and opinions," Chidoni said. "Posing in Sports Illustrated gives Barbie and her fellow legends an opportunity to own who they are, celebrate what they have accomplished and show the world it's ok to be attractive AND successful - in a word, #unapologetic."
Laura Ries, president of marketing strategy firm Ries & Ries in Roswell, Ga., said Mattel has skilfully generated media buzz for the brand that could stir nostalgia among adults and help lift the brand.
"It's a solid move," she said in a telephone interview. "It's not just a crazy ad in Maxim. If she was shown in a midriff and black eyeliner under her eyes, that would have been distasteful and gotten a lot more PR. Look what Miley Cyrus has accomplished going down that road. It is tastefully done."
Mattel began a concerted effort to make Barbie part of the cultural conversation again on Valentine's Day in 2011, when the company announced she was getting back together with Ken after "the breakup of the millennium." To make Ken more appealing to Barbie - and potential buyers - Mattel gave him a Justin Bieber-like haircut. The company also allowed the makers of Toy Story 3 to cast Ken as himself, having previously refused to allow the doll to participate.
"We gave people permission to play with our brand, to have fun," in the hope that it would become culturally relevant again, Richard Dickson, then brand president, said at the time.