“What happens when girls are free to imagine they can be anything?”
A recently released ad, titled “Imagine the Possibilities,” explores this question, with little girls shown taking command in professional roles: college professor, veterinarian, men’s soccer coach, globe-trotting businesswoman, and museum tour guide. Who’s behind the charming ad? Barbie.
This may come as a surprise to those who associate the doe-eyed doll with chiseled features and an impossibly slim waistline. Indeed, Barbie’s svelte figure is problematic—but the ad calls attention to female empowerment beyond a woman’s looks. This ad, the first in a campaign from ad agency BBDO, is part of an “ongoing brand evolution designed to encourage parents to reappraise the role Barbie can play in [a] child’s life,” says Evelyn Mazzocco, global senior vice president and general manager of Barbie.
Sure, some may see the campaign as no more than a ploy for parents to buy more of the popular doll. But I, for one, always appreciated the imaginative play that Barbie facilitates. When I played with Barbie, her role varied from veterinarian (like I wanted to be), to stay-at-home mom, to professional surfer (with a surfboard accessory to boot), to even a high school teacher—just to name a few. While I have yet to follow any of these paths, Barbie let me explore these prospects.
Barbie has long celebrated women’s vocations. In fact, Ruth Handler, who created Barbie, was a mother and businesswoman. Other beloved brands, such as American Girl, produce dolls the age of a child. In contrast, Barbie is a woman. Barbie doesn’t have just one career but several. In 1960, she worked as a fashion designer; in 1961, a registered nurse; an executive celebrating the Equal Pay Act in 1963; an astronaut in 1965, four years before men landed on the moon; a surgeon in 1973; Miss America in 1974; an Olympic gold medalist in 1976; an army ranger in 1993; a pediatrician in 1994; a vet in 1996; a dentist in 1997; an art teacher in 2002; a presidential candidate in 2004; and a celebrity chef in 2008, among other careers.
“Barbie was originally created to show girls they have choices, a fact that most people have forgotten,” said Matt Miller, executive creative director at BBDO San Francisco. “So we set out to show everyone how girls really play and demonstrate that, when girls play with Barbie, they actually play out the possibilities their futures hold.”
That’s not to say that Barbie is without issues; certainly the emphasis on clothing and her body proportions are things to lament. But to deny Barbie’s history as a woman with vocational choices is to deny a significant aspect of the brand’s identity. Perhaps this legacy has been lost in a trail of negative publicity based on body image and shallow values, but rather than recreate the role that Barbie can play in a child’s life, the ad resurrects something that’s been essential to the brand from the start.
What if an iconic fashion doll could teach girls that their worth lies beyond their appearance? Of course Barbie can be fashionable and pretty—but for the sake of young girls, she should be more than her looks because girls need to know they can be more. Emphasizing the vocational aspects of the doll is certainly pointing the brand in a positive direction. If this ad is telling of a larger rebranding, then Barbie’s modern legacy may even become one of empowerment. Perhaps one day Barbie’s best accessory will be her mind.