Model Behaviour: Barbie, body image and the importance of transparency

Barbie’s recent campaign is great news. A positive empowering message, and if you have not seen it you should. The ad shows young girls dreaming about their careers in Business, Academia and Veterinary Medicine with Barbie helping them to play out their dreams. It’s all a stark contrast to the brand’s #unapologetic campaign that saw Barbie appear in the swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated. A brand that has come under some criticism because of the body ideal it portrays seems to have taken a new direction with an inspiring message.

This is clearly an emotive ad, designed to make us see the brand in a different way. Barbie is telling us that she has always inspired play and that this allows girls to play out their dreams of success. The question though is how this is different to what any other toy brand can offer and how the Barbie product provides this in a unique way? Draw a face on an old cereal packet and a child’s imagination will create an entire world around it – it is not a point of difference for Barbie.

When we come to the end of the ad we are reminded that Barbie retains her waifish figure, albeit with the addition of some on-trend, thick-rimmed glasses. It is easy to understand why Barbie might want to focus on the power of imagination rather than the concerns of an unhealthy body image. Focussing the campaign on a more optimistic message feels intuitively right. There are examples that prove to the contrary though.

In the UK McDonalds has long been held up as the bête noir of healthy living. As a market leader it has received more of the anti-fast-food flack than any other brand. Yet McDonalds has achieved 37 consecutive quarters of growth. McDonald’s has achieved this not simply through inspiring advertising but by facing the concerns around fast food head-on. It changed its product through a huge programme of store modernisation, better staff training and bringing in more contemporary products such as smoothies and fresh coffee. All the while they have clearly communicated these changes to consumers and in their latest campaigns tackled the urban myths about their ingredients and products.

Decades of experience and leadership is not enough today to engender trust in a brand. People are looking for honesty and transparency from brands. With information and opinion only a click away it is much easier for consumers to feel that the wool is being pulled over their eyes. McDonalds acknowledged this and success has come their way.

Barbie has a competitor that has done this too. The Lammily doll, with more realistic body proportions. Created to encourage a healthier body image Lammily has directly engaged with the debate surrounding fashion dolls. It is true that in the new ad Barbie, arguably, does not attempt to hide the doll’s figure. However, the power of a young girl’s imagination does not equate to a real point of difference either and it feels as though the brand is avoiding, rather than engaging with the debate. One thing is not in doubt though, it has created some great PR!

The Barbie Campaign: