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 says that 55-year-old Barbie will join the ranks of Tyra Banks, Christie Brinkley and Rachel Hunter in the magazine’s 50th anniversary swimsuit issue, which goes on sale Tuesday. Barbie will appear in a version of the black-and-white bathing suit she wore for her 1959 debut, the company said. The Time Inc. magazine and toymaker also rolled out an advertising campaign with the tagline “unapologetic.”
“This program is about underscoring who you are, being unapologetic about who you are and celebrating that alongside all these great women and legends who are more than just pretty faces,” said Mattel spokeswoman Michelle Chidoni.
Within hours of the announcement, a debate was raging on the Web and television. While some saw no controversy, others said that the swimsuit issue demeans women and that Barbie’s unrealistic proportions send an unhealthy message to girls.
“What year are we?” Sallie Krawcheck, a former Bank of America and Citigroup executive, said. “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.”
Mattel reached out to Sports Illustrated roughly eight months ago about a collaboration. The publication reaches some 17 million women.
Posing in the magazine, Chidoni said, gives Barbie an opportunity to “show the world it’s OK to be attractive AND successful.”
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 sales declined 6 percent. Global revenue from Barbie fell 13 percent in Mattel’s most recent quarter, when the El Segundo, Calif.-based company posted revenue that trailed analysts’ estimates.
Through Wednesday, Mattel shares had fallen 22 percent this year, compared with a 1.6 percent decline for the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index.
Laura Ries, president of marketing strategy firm Ries & Ries in Roswell, Ga., said Mattel has skillfully generated media buzz for the brand.
“It’s a solid move,” she said. “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.”
This report includes material from the Los Angeles Times.