Thought Bubble: Barbie gets a diversity makeover

February 3, 2016
7 min read

Mattel recently unveiled Barbie’s new look after a complete diversity makeover. With dolls now available in different shapes, sizes and skin tones, will Mattel’s new dolls appeal to consumers? Our expert analysts see if plastic really is fantastic…

Juan-RuizJuan Ruiz, Director of Hispanic Insights

The recent introduction of Barbie dolls featuring more diverse body shapes and skin tones has been warmly welcomed by some who considered it a long-overdue move in the right direction. On the other hand, it has also been met with skepticism, particularly by those who don’t think toys can be valid role models.

This raises the question of how multicultural audiences may respond to initiatives to demonstrate inclusivity and diversity, and whether they will buy these toys for their children or not. Let’s look at the case of Hispanics in the US. For example, Mintel’s Character Merchandising US 2015 report shows 40% of American parents who have purchased licensed merchandise for their children believe their children’s favorite characters are positive role models for them. However, Hispanics are less likely than non-Hispanics to think so.

For Hispanics, it is important that their children have a connection to their roots and don’t forget where they come from. Mintel research indicates Hispanics understand that their children are growing up exposed to the American culture at school, and that Hispanic values and traditions will be lost if they are not taught at home. They are doing this most likely through food, traditions and content – but not necessarily through toys. Like most children, Hispanic children want to play with the same types of toys their friends have at school.

Toys that embrace diversity will do well if they naturally fit in the play dynamic. It all starts with the consumer – kids in this case. Time and sales will be the final judge.


Ina Miskavets, Senior Consumer Analyst

Today’s society is rapidly becoming more diverse (and accepting of diversity), and children’s toys manufacturers are starting to provide a better reflection of these trends. In view of this, the announcement that after 55 years, Mattel has given their iconic Barbie doll a makeover is long overdue.

Barbie dolls now come in a variety of body sizes, heights and skin tones, providing a greater selection of toys that girls today could more easily relate to. Worldwide sales of Barbie dolls have fallen every year since 2012 portraying the extent of boredom with the classic look of the doll.
Mintel’s Marketing to Mums UK 2015 report shows that 52% of British mothers agree that unrealistic stereotypes in toys have a negative effect on their children. Millennial mums appear to be more responsive to this, illustrating how social mores could change in a matter of a couple of generations.

Many of today’s toys are steering kids towards certain future jobs and developing different skills. However, many toys aimed at girls have been shown to have a negative impact on their body image and self-esteem, as they tend to focus on their appearance and emphasis sweetness, whilst boys’ products focus on action and aggression.

Toys that convey the message that girls can be anything they want when they grow up will find a more welcoming audience among parents and will provide more realistic role-models for children.

Catering to families’ diversity in advertising and marketing is an equally effective strategy. Over a third of British mums are interested in seeing more advertising showing diverse role models for their kids. The demand for a more realistic representation of families will, no doubt, shape the conversations and commercial decisions in advertising, media and children’s products in the near future.


Stacy Glasgow, Consumer Trends Consultant

As Bob Dylan would muse, “the times, they are a-changin’,” and the changing times have dictated that Barbie receive a long-demanded diversity makeover.

Mattel announced last week that the iconic plastic doll will now more realistically represent the broader scope of women – not just those who exhibit blonde hair and improbable proportions, as seen in most iterations of the toy historically. Upcoming Barbie versions will be available in three new body types, seven new skin tones, 22 new eye colors and 24 new hairstyles. Moving forward, children and parents will effectively have the ability to choose a doll that more closely resembles the society in which they live.

Mintel’s 2016 North America Consumer Trend Pride & Persona predicted that as society becomes increasingly diverse, people will continue to become more overall equality-minded. This cultural shift is accompanied by a developing expectation that companies and brands will more accurately portray reality. As a result, brands need to be more proactive in reflecting the broader scope of potential consumers, as Mattel has done with Barbie.

That emerging expectation certainly applies to children’s toys. Mintel’s Marketing to Moms US 2015 report shows that 42% of US moms want their children to be comfortable being themselves and 31% want their children to be open minded. Further, Mintel has found that 83% of US children aged 6-11 already agree it is important to accept people with different racial or ethnic backgrounds.

For many moms and dads, past Barbies have seemed to hinder development of such positive characteristics in their children, but that perception will likely change. Mattel has undoubtedly put its best foot forward with the new line of dolls that inherently encourages children to develop those parentally desired traits.

With the shift toward racial and ethnic inclusiveness, we’re seeing a correlating demand that companies abandon antiquated gender stereotypes, especially as they relate to children. As it happens, Mattel’s latest announcement comes just weeks after it also made waves with a commercial that showed a young boy playing with a Barbie doll, which historically has been positioned strictly as a girls’ toy.

The company’s wise moves are positioned to be beneficial for all parties involved: kids will be able to better relate to their dolls, and parents will feel comfort in them doing so. Mattel, itself, will enjoy an alleviation of long standing pressure and criticism to provide such comfort – ultimately allowing Barbie to construct her own progressive personality and forge more meaningful connections with kids and parents alike.

Juan covers US Hispanic consumers as part of Mintel Multicultural Reports. Juan has extensive experience working in the US Hispanic research market, helping clients understand the dynamics of the demographic. In addition to his research background, his first-hand experience moving from his native Bolivia to the US allows him to bring an intimate perspective to his field.

Senior Consumer Analyst, Ina Mitskavets, writes Mintel’s UK Lifestyles reports analysing consumer behavior and attitudes. Prior to joining Mintel in 2011, Ina was a Quantitative Manager at Forrester Research. Ina has been quoted in numerous media outlets, including the Times, Sunday Times, Reuters, the Daily Telegraph, the Huffington Post and Marketing Magazine and has also been interviewed on 24 national and regional BBC radio stations, including Radio 5 Live and Wake up to Money.

Stacy Glasgow is a Consumer Trends Consultant at Mintel. Stacy joined Mintel in 2013 bringing with her an exciting blend of CPG, agency and marketing experience. Her time is spent traveling the US engaging clients across global CPG, Beauty and Financial Services in meaningful discussions around the consumer trends that will propel their businesses forward.

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