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Barbie with Down Syndrome

Published: February 27, 2024

Meaningful Impact
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Barbie with Down Syndrome
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Episode Description

With the introduction of a Barbie doll with Down syndrome, Mattel has further evolved Barbie from its original, unrealistic body shape into a broadly diverse product line. Barbie Fashionistas now include disability representation as well as a wide variety of body shapes, hairstyles, skin tones, and cultural identities. But Mattel wasn’t always so inclusive. Far from it.

To fully appreciate just how far Barbie has come, this episode of Meaningful Impact explores the behind-the-scenes story of Barbie’s beginnings, with a candid review of the early issues and missteps which made Barbie such a lightning rod for controversy.

Ultimately, Barbie’s evolution is a powerful story of brand redemption. We’ll explore how Mattel eventually embraced mutually-beneficial corporate citizenship to offer non-stereotypical Barbie dolls which now account for half of Barbie sales.

Content Warning: This episode includes mature themes, a reference to eating disorders, a third-party perspective on abortion and, for historical accuracy, one use of a term which some may consider to be a racial slur. The opinions expressed by third parties do not necessarily represent those of Meaningful Impact, the host, or any other person or organization referenced in this podcast.

On This Episode

Michael OrganMichael Organ produces and hosts the Meaningful Impact podcast. He specializes in Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) communications and is the editor of CSR.org and CauseMarketing.com.

Michael Organ offers the insight and expertise which comes from analyzing the outcomes of marketing campaigns that he’s implemented for over 500 corporate and non-profit clients.  In addition to hosting Meaningful Impact’s podcast, Michael Organ also oversees the Meaningful Impact Awards, as Executive Director.

Prior to founding Meaningful Impact, Michael Organ was a Managing Director at Kivvit (a public affairs and reputation agency); Vice President of Digital Marketing at Thematic Campaigns; and served as Obama for America’s first Digital Advertising Director and subsequently its Message Director. That led to co-founding Bully Pulpit Interactive, a leading marketing and public affairs agency for high-profile campaigns seeking transformational change. Earlier, Michael Organ worked at Accenture in multiple roles, including Vice President of Marketing of Accenture Procurement Solutions.

With the introduction of a Barbie doll with Down syndrome, Mattel has further evolved Barbie from its original, unrealistic body shape into a broadly diverse product line. Barbie Fashionistas now include disability representation as well as a wide variety of body shapes, hairstyles, skin tones, and cultural identities. But Mattel wasn’t always so inclusive. Far from it.

To fully appreciate just how far Barbie has come, this episode of Meaningful Impact explores the behind-the-scenes story of Barbie’s beginnings, with a candid review of the early issues and missteps which made Barbie such a lightning rod for controversy.

Ultimately, Barbie’s evolution is a powerful story of brand redemption. We’ll explore how Mattel eventually embraced mutually-beneficial corporate citizenship to offer non-stereotypical Barbie dolls which now account for half of Barbie sales.

Content Warning: This episode includes mature themes, a reference to eating disorders, a third-party perspective on abortion and, for historical accuracy, one use of a term which some may consider to be a racial slur. The opinions expressed by third parties do not necessarily represent those of Meaningful Impact, the host, or any other person or organization referenced in this podcast.

On This Episode

Michael OrganMichael Organ produces and hosts the Meaningful Impact podcast. He specializes in Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) communications and is also the editor of CSR.org and CauseMarketing.com. Michael Organ offers the insight and expertise which comes from analyzing the outcomes of marketing campaigns that he’s implemented for over 500 corporate and non-profit clients.  In addition to hosting the Meaningful Impact podcast, Michael Organ oversees the Meaningful Impact Awards, as Executive Director. Prior to founding Meaningful Impact, Michael Organ was a Managing Director at Kivvit (a public affairs and reputation agency); Vice President of Digital Marketing at Thematic Campaigns; and served as Obama for America’s first Digital Advertising Director and subsequently its Message Director. That led to co-founding Bully Pulpit Interactive, a leading marketing and public affairs agency for high-profile campaigns seeking transformational change. [Test Marker 1]

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Transcript and Related Material

Prologue

As a child, Kayla McKeon liked playing with dolls. Sadly, though, Kayla didn’t see herself represented in any of the dolls that she played with. So, when she became an adult, Kayla helped design a new kind of doll.

The face sculpt of Kayla’s doll has a rounder shape, smaller ears, and a flatter nasal bridge. Just like Kayla. In terms of height, the doll is shorter than average, yet has a proportionately longer torso, also just like Kayla. The doll’s eyes are almond shaped and slightly slanted; just like Kayla’s eyes.

Kayla McKeon holds Barbie with Down Syndrome
Kayla McKeon holding Barbie with Down Syndrome

If you’re visualizing these features, perhaps you’ve already guessed that Kayla McKeon has Down Syndrome. As does the doll.

So, which company worked with Kayla McKeon to produce the first mass market doll with Down syndrome? Mattel, as part of their Barbie Fashionistas product line.

Kayla McKeon: “When I was young, I loved dolls. I loved playing with dolls in different scenarios and I never had a Barbie that looked like myself… But, now I see a doll that looks like me. I’m wowed. This is super.”

That’s Kayla McKeon, talking to Michigan’s Fox 17 while on a media tour for Barbie with Down Syndrome.

Kayla is the Manager of Grassroots Advocacy at the National Down Syndrome Society, a graduate of Onondaga Community College, the first registered lobbyist who has Down syndrome – and, as it turns out, a talented contributor to the design of the first ever Barbie with Down Syndrome.

Kayla McKeon: “I never thought, when I was young, that there could be a doll with Down syndrome. And just being part of the process is just amazing… I’m so happy and so honored to be able to be a part of this beautiful fashionista.” That was Kayla McKeon talking with MSNBC.

So, how did Barbie evolve from a single, unrealistic body shape into a broadly diverse product line which even includes a doll with Down syndrome? That’s what we’ll explore on this episode of Meaningful Impact.

Introduction

Welcome to Meaningful Impact. On this episode, I’m excited to share an extraordinary story of brand redemption, transforming Barbie from its early days of corporate social irresponsibility that was, frankly, reflective of its time.

Fast forward to current day, there is now much to be proud of. Later in this episode, we’ll focus on one of Mattel’s crowning achievements: Barbie Fashionistas Doll #208 better known as Barbie with Down Syndrome.

To be clear, the Barbie product line of dolls is now amongst the most diverse and inclusive available.

Six diverse Barbie Fashionistas dolls, including Barbie with Down Syndrome

But it wasn’t always that way. Far from it.

To fully appreciate just how far Barbie has come, it’s important to review the doll’s origins, and to recognize what made it, historically, such a lightning rod for controversy.

Along the way, I’ll include some myth busting.

The first Barbie commercial aired during the ‘Mickey Mouse Club’ in 1959. The same year, Barbie made its first public appearance at the New York Toy Fair, wearing a black-and-white, zebra-striped one-piece swimsuit.

In the early years, if Barbie’s measurements were translated to human size, at 5’9” tall and a weight of 110 pounds, Barbie would have had a 39” bust, an 18” waist, and 33” hips, corresponding to a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 16.2 consistent with a diagnosis of anorexia, according to the South Shore Eating Disorder Collaborative.

In fact, in 1965, Slumber Party Barbie was packaged with a pink bathroom scale permanently set at 110 pounds, accompanied by a book titled ‘How to Lose Weight’. The diet book included only one instruction: “Don’t eat.”

Barbie’s Origin Story

The recent Barbie movie would have us believe that Barbie was invented by a woman, Ruth Handler, co-founder of Mattel. But, in truth, Barbie was a knock-off of a sexy German doll named Bild Lilli, designed by men for men. The provocative Bild Lilli looked like a pin-up poster in 11-inch doll form and was typically given to men as a novelty gift, including at bachelor parties.

In 1961, Bild Lilli’s manufacturer sued for copyright infringement. Mattel settled the case out of court and bought Lilli’s copyright in 1964.

To be clear, Ruth Handler did participate in Barbie’s design. For several years, Handler insisted that young girls would want an adult-looking fashion doll. According to The New Yorker, Handler was quoted as saying that she wanted Barbie to have “a narrow waist, narrow ankles, and boobs.”

But it was a man, a Hugh Heffner-esque swinger, who codified the design of Barbie as a man’s fantasy of an ideal woman.

If you want proof, check out the program notes for this episode at MeaningfulImpact.com. There you’ll find a copy of Barbie’s US Patent #3009284 which bears the name of the patent holder as not Ruth Handler but rather J. W. Ryan.

Barbie US Patent #3009284

Though largely lost to history, Jack W. Ryan was Mattel’s chief designer at the time, responsible not only for the construction diagrams of Barbie but also Hot Wheels, Chatty Cathy, and Barbie’s boyfriend Ken.

Ryan was as genius as he was eccentric, perhaps influenced by his childhood infatuation with Radio City Rockettes and pin-ups. According to reporting by the Daily Mail, Ryan’s Research and Development department at Mattel headquarters was “decorated with Barbie dolls contorted into erotic poses.” Ryan’s considerable Barbie royalties were spent, in part, on a five-and-a-half-acre estate in Bel Air, modified to look like a castle, featuring turrets and drawbridges throughout the property as well as a rumored, fur-lined sex dungeon for orgies. Ryan had five wives and many more girlfriends, most of whom looked similar to Barbie, sometimes with Ryan’s urging to diet or get cosmetic surgery.

Many believe that Barbie and Ken were named after Ruth Handler’s children, Barbara and Kenneth. That is probably, at least partially, true. However, someone else related to our story was also named Barbara: Jack Ryan’s first wife, Barbara Ryan, who went by the nickname “Barbie.” Jack Ryan was married to Barbie Ryan at the time of the Barbie doll’s creation in 1959.

Original Barbie (1959) in a zebra-striped swimsuit

None of this should diminish Ruth Handler’s status as a marketing visionary. In fact, she was. Before Barbie, most dolls were created in the form of babies or toddlers so that young girls could imagine themselves as stay-at-home mothers caring for their children. It was Ruth Handler who recognized that young girls would also enjoy role playing with teenage fashion dolls. In fact, well before Gillette made a fortune by selling inexpensive razors as a loss leader to make its profit on replacement razor blades, Mattel marketed affordable plastic Barbie dolls and then upsold modular fashion clothes and doll house accessories.

Barbie’s Early Controversies

For nearly a decade after launch, all of the dolls in the Barbie product line were white. In 1967, at a time when approximately 12% of Americans were non-white, Mattel introduced the first black doll in the Barbie product line. However, the name of the doll includes a term that was becoming outdated by 1967 and many now consider a racial slur. The dolls name was “Colored Francie.”

Other than darkening the doll’s hair and skin tone, the body and face sculpt of the doll was identical to an earlier version of a white Francie. The black version of Francie was criticized for having “Caucasian features.” Though both white and black Francie were officially part of the Barbie product line, white Francie was considered to be Barbie’s cousin; black Francie was not. The black version of Francie was quickly discontinued. A much more popular black doll, named Christie, debuted a year later.

In 1980, 21 years after Barbie’s introduction, non-white dolls in the product line finally got the honor of being named Barbie, rather than referred to as a friend. By that time, 20% of Americans were non-white.

There were other controversies as well, such as Teen Talk Barbie which contained a voice emulator programmed with a random assortment of four phrases out of a possible 270. The vast majority of the phrases were innocuous, such as “Wanna have a pizza party?” and “Let’s have a campfire.” But, one of Teen Talk Barbie’s phrases drew widespread criticism. Listen for yourself:

Teen Talk Barbie: “Math class is tough.”

Some of the Teen Talk Barbie’s said, “Math class is tough,” much to the consternation of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, the American Association of University Women, and lots of parents.

Yet, in other ways, the Barbie product line has actually been ahead of its time, such as helping young girls to imagine themselves as homeowners and independent woman with careers. At first, though, most of Barbie’s careers were in fields traditionally associated with women, such as an actress, maid, aerobics instructor, ballerina, and figure skater.

There were, however, notable exceptions. For instance, the first Astronaut Barbie was introduced in 1965, just two years after the first female astronaut, a Russian, orbited the earth. The first doctor Barbie doll debuted in 1973. At the time, fewer than 10% of doctors were women.

During the 1990s, Mattel introduced many more Barbies engaged in careers traditionally held by men, such as a Marine Corps sergeant, presidential candidate, paleontologist, basketball player, and superhero.

Yet, regardless of skin tone or career, there were still vast differences in the body shape of Barbie dolls compared to the average American woman.

When interviewed by Connie Chung in 1994, Ruth Handler rejected criticisms related to body shape.

Connie Chung: “I think the main criticism of Barbie is that no woman can ever look like Barbie anatomically – that young girls will eventually be dissatisfied with their own bodies.

Ruth Hander: “Many women have a problem with their own bodies as they grow older. I cannot believe that the doll causes that.”

A study published in the Developmental Psychology journal disagrees. Lead author Dr. Helga Dittmar, Emeritus Professor of Social and Applied Psychology at the University of Sussex, studied the effect of dolls on the body image of 5- to 8-year-old girls. Among the 162 studied, the girls shown images of Barbie reported lower body esteem and greater desire for a thinner body shape than girls shown images of a size 16 doll or not shown images of dolls at all.

Professor Dittmar concluded that “… early exposure to dolls epitomizing an unrealistically thin body ideal may damage girls’ body image, which would contribute to an increased risk of disordered eating and weight cycling.”

It wasn’t until two decades later, following a sharp decline in Barbie sales, that Mattel became responsive to evolving attitudes towards body image.

Barbie’s Path to Inclusivity

According to reporting by Business Insider, Mattel executive Lisa McKnight recognized that Barbie had enormous brand awareness, but waning buy-in. “Barbie was seen as too perfect and aspirational. We needed to show her vulnerability,” said McKnight.

Echoing those concerns, Mattel’s ad agency, BBDO in San Francisco, advised that Barbie had become “way too much about plastic and not enough about purpose.”

Time Magazine covering new Barbie body shapes, asking: "Now can we stop talking about my body?"

In 2016, Mattel released groundbreaking Barbies representing three new body types: curvy, tall and petite. Most of the public attention focused on Curvy Barbie, which has wider hips, thicker thighs and calves, and a slightly plump stomach. That said, Curvy Barbie is by no means plus size. A contemporary analysis by BBC estimated that, if projected to adult human size, Curvy Barbie would wear a US size 6. Despite the moniker “curvy”, size 6 is actually much slimmer than the average young adult woman in the United States.

Mattel spokesperson Sarah Allen argued that Barbie dolls should not be expected to represent average human proportions, saying: “Barbie is a doll. She is not meant to reflect a real woman’s body. The purpose of introducing three new bodies into the range is variety and differentiation. When you look at the dolls collectively you can see the range in relationship between the dolls.”

That said, Professor Dittmar (who 10 years earlier led the study which revealed the alleged harmful effects of stereotypical Barbie) hailed the introduction of diverse Barbie body shapes in 2016. Professor Dittmar told BBC: “It’s encouraging that Barbie is now coming in different body shapes, it’s a step in the right direction.”

With the hashtag #TheDollEvolves, Mattel announced that “imagination comes in all shapes and sizes.”

For the launch of Barbie dolls with diverse bodies, Mattel gave an exclusive to Time Magazine, which featured on its cover a side-view of Curvy Barbie. The cover headline asked: “Now can we stop talking about my body?” and then asserted: “What Barbie’s new shape says about American beauty.”

I’m happy to report that Barbie’s inclusion evolution has continued to this day. Barbie now offers an impressively diverse doll line, featuring 9 body types, 35 different skin tones, and 97 different hairstyles.

But, what about representation for those with medical conditions and disabilities, leading to a Barbie with Down Syndrome that affects just 0.1% of the population? More on that, when we return.

The Precursors to Barbie with Down Syndrome

Let’s quickly review the precursors to Barbie with Down Syndrome.

Barbie doll with removable prosthetic leg

In 1997, seven years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Mattel introduced Becky, the first doll in the Barbie product line to be in a wheelchair. Unfortunately, and ironically, there were accessibility issues. Becky’s wheelchair neither fit through the door of the Barbie Dream House nor in the elevator. And Becky’s long hair was susceptible to getting caught in the wheels of the chair. So, Mattel made changes and re-released the doll as ‘Share a Smile Becky’ which sold out in two weeks.

Another early example of medical-condition representation would occur in 2012. To comfort young girls undergoing chemotherapy, Mattel produced a bald friend of Barbie named Ella. Initially created only to be distributed directly to hospitals, Ella was reissued in a larger production run two years later.

In 2019, Mattel released Barbie Fashionistas Doll #121, an amputee with a removable prosthetic leg.

In 2020, Mattel introduced Barbie Fashionistas Doll #135 with Vitiligo, an autoimmune condition which makes skin look patchy.

The Fashionistas product line continues to expand its medical and disability representation; in fact, boldly so, with now brightly-colored prosthetic limbs and a Barbie with a hot pink, behind-the-ear hearing aid.

These dolls were the precursors which paved the way for Barbie with Down Syndrome, which was released in April 2023 and generated a lot of media attention, like this example coverage on NBC News.

NBC News Now: “She is 64 years old but Barbie is still breaking those barriers. Mattel just introduced a new Barbie with Down Syndrome in the company’s latest effort to make the doll more inclusive. Mattel says it worked closely with experts to make sure the doll represents the physical characteristics often associated with the genetic condition.”

Barbie with Down Syndrome

If given just a quick glance, Barbie with Down syndrome looks much like a stereotypical Barbie.

Barbie with Down Syndrome, shown inside and outside the doll's packaging

That’s intentional. According to Mattel, “Barbie’s design team created prototypes that reflected the physical features of individuals with Down syndrome while retaining the iconic Barbie aesthetic.” The shared characteristics include long, flowing blonde hair; a traditionally attractive face with symmetrical features; long legs; and a fashionable dress.

Yet, on closer inspection, subtle differences are noticeable.

For instance, when compared to stereotypical Barbie side-by-side, Barbie with Down Syndrome has a shorter frame and a longer torso; a rounder face shape, smaller ears, a flat nasal bridge, and slightly-slanted, almond-shaped eyes.

Once removed from the package, the most obvious difference becomes visible: Barbie with Down Syndrome wears foot and ankle orthotics which extend from her shoes to mid-calves. Even so, the pink color of the orthotics makes them appear to be a stylish fashion accessory.

Barbie with Down Syndrome has additional thoughtful customizations but recognizing them requires specialized knowledge. For instance, the doll’s pink pendant necklace with three upward chevrons represents the three copies of the 21st chromosome present in individuals with Down syndrome. That three chevron symbol has also been embraced to represent “the lucky few” who have someone with Down syndrome in their life. The doll’s dress pattern features butterflies, a Down syndrome symbol, as well as yellow and blue colors associated with Down syndrome awareness. In fact, Mattel was so deferential to the Down syndrome community, and paid such close attention to detail, that they even included a prominent single line crease on the doll’s palms – a physical characteristic commonly associated with Down syndrome.

Mattel got Barbie with Down Syndrome right by workshopping the doll’s design with an advocate group, the National Down Syndrome Society, yielding their endorsement. In fact, the logo of the National Down Syndrome Society appears as an apparent seal of approval on the doll’s container.

A Mattel-produced video shares how parents of children with Down syndrome reacted to the doll:

  • “You could bring tears to my eyes just to see that Barbie has Down syndrome. It’s a representation of my daughter.”
  • “Creating this doll with Down syndrome is really Barbie saying: ‘We see you. We see your value and we honor you as a part of our community’.”
  • “The idea that a kid can walk into any store into the toy aisle and see a doll – a Barbie – a doll that they love with Down syndrome is incredible.”
Earned Media

For the Mattel PR team, the crowning achievement of the Barbie with Down Syndrome launch was a four-minute segment on Good Morning America. Here is ABC’s chief business correspondent Rebecca Jarvis with the lead-in.

Rebecca Jarvis: “All right you see the big pink Barbie sign and we are back now with an exclusive reveal all around us are the Barbie Fashionista dolls the Brand’s most inclusive line and this morning we are unveiling the newest one the first ever Barbie with Down syndrome.”

The full four-minute Good Morning America segment was worth approximately $280,000 if purchased as a commercial. As a rule of thumb, some media relations professionals would triple the equivalent advertising value to $840,000 with the premise that editorial earned media is worth three times as much as commercials because of the credibility conferred by a third-party news program (and the lower likelihood of skipping the content).

Barbie with Down Syndrome received glowing coverage on both national and local media outlets.

Here’s a sampling of the lead-ins, starting with Fox 10 in Phoenix.

Fox 10 in Phoenix: “Barbie has introduced another first in its 64-year history. A new doll representing someone with Down syndrome. Fox 10’s Stephanie Bennett joins us live with the story. Steff.”

Here’s WCNC, a local NBC station in Charlotte, North Carolina: “Taking a look at what’s trending today: The folks at Mattel and Barbie are trying to expand their reach even further so that everyone can play. The toymaker releasing a new Barbie with Down syndrome… the new Barbie joins several other unique dolls as part of the company’s more inclusive fashionistas line.”

Kayla McKeon interviewed on News 9 about Barbie with Down Syndrome

Barbie with Down Syndrome was even the lead story on News Channel 9, the ABC station in North Syracuse: “A very good evening to you. I’m Jeff Kulikowsky. I’m Christie Casciano. There’s a new Barbie making her way to store shelves soon. And a Central New York woman helped with the design. Kayla McKeon tells News Channel 9’s Iris St. Meran how she got the doll made.”
Beyond television, media outreach earned placement in top-tier online outlets across parenting, social good, ad trade, entertainment, and lifestyle verticals.

To further amplify the reach of the campaign, Mattel also partnered with online influencers, including disability rights advocates and internet celebrities with a personal connection to Down syndrome.

Message Discipline

While we’re at it, let’s give a hat tip to Mattel’s messaging team for impressive media training and message discipline. In press releases, social media, and press interviews, both Mattel and National Down Syndrome Society spokespeople consistently emphasized two commitments:

  1. a commitment to enabling all children to see themselves in Barbie
  2. a commitment to normalizing different abilities through visibility and inclusion

Here’s a soundbite example, featuring Mattel’s Lisa McKnight, as shared by the Associated Press:

“Barbie can play an important role in a child’s early experiences, and we’re dedicated to combating social stigma and enabling all children to see themselves in Barbie as well as have a Barbie that reflects the world around them.” Lisa McKnight is a cause champion who has led the transformation in the Barbie product line since 2015. That’s required a lot of courageous decisions, as you’ll hear when we return.

Reputation Risks

In hindsight, the choice to release a Barbie with Down syndrome has proven to be an excellent decision. Yet, I marvel that Mattel had the chutzpah to release a Barbie with Down Syndrome at all, especially given the timing. When the doll was approved for production, the potential reputation risks were fraught with dilemmas.

For instance, in the immediate aftermath of the Supreme Court overturning Roe vs. Wade, it’s easy to imagine how the Barbie brand could be damaged by a doll mired in an ideological buzzsaw.

As background, in the United States, more than half of pregnancies are terminated when genetic testing reveals a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome. So, predictably, Barbie with Down Syndrome has been embraced by some social conservatives as a pro life doll.

Mattel likely also anticipated that some pro choice conservatives would view Barbie with Down Syndrome as a catalyst for woke over-reach. These conservatives have no beef with a Down syndrome doll per se, but they proffer the ‘slippery slope’ argument. That is: If Mattel releases a doll with Down syndrome, what’s next? These critics then float ideas for what they would consider an achingly-inclusive parade of horribles, such as a ‘Transgender Ken’ doll.

Matt Walsh, an influential conservative commentator, references both points of view as he explains his own perspective on Barbie with Down syndrome: “I’ve seen some conservatives making fun of this and calling it woke – it’s another woke, inclusive, PC thing. That’s what some are saying. And I’ll admit, in the first moment… I almost had that reaction because I saw the term “inclusive Barbie doll and my first instinctive reaction is to roll my eyes because 99.9% of the time, it’s going to be something stupid. But then there’s the 0.1% of the time when it’s actually something good. And this is the 0.1%… Down syndrome people really do need to be included. We do need inclusivity campaigns for them because Down syndrome people, especially children, are being excluded from society in the most violent and bloody ways. They’re being exterminated by the abortion industry. “

Frankly, it would have been easy for Mattel to have ducked. They could have avoided a hard decision by shelving the Barbie with Down Syndrome idea due to market size concerns. After all, the number of girls born with Down syndrome in the United States each year is fewer than 3,000. For a company the size of Mattel, that’s a puny core market. While it’s true that some parents of children not affected by Down syndrome will buy a doll with differences as a means to nurture inclusivity, Mattel already offered a wide variety of other diverse options with less potential for controversy.

So, releasing Barbie with Down Syndrome was a bold choice.

What’s In It for Mattel?

When launched, Barbie with Down Syndrome had a list price of $10.99. Shortly before this podcast episode was recorded in January 2024, the doll was selling at Amazon.com at a high of $7.99 and a low of $6.39. The low end of that retail price range is a 42% discount off the original list price and yet also includes free shipping for Amazon Prime members.

All things considered, if Mattel is making any direct profit on Barbie with Down Syndrome, it’s likely negligible at best after accounting for Amazon’s fulfillment fees and Mattel’s costs for R&D, marketing, materials, production, assembly, packaging, and shipping from their factory in Indonesia.

Mattel wins the Toy Foundation's Gold award for corporate social responsibility.

So, given that Mattel is a publicly-traded company with a responsibility to its shareholders, what’s in it for Mattel?

My view is that the answer is revealed in the following two clips from the 2023 Toy of the Year Awards. To set the scene, it’s September 29, 2023 at a fancy gala in New York City for the Toy Foundation. Eight hundred toy industry influencers and trade media are in the audience as the award is announced for Corporate Responsibility Initiative of the Year.
“And the gold winner is First Barbie Doll with Down Syndrome by Mattel ” . Nancy Molenda, who leads Mattel’s Foundation and Corporate Philanthropy was at the gala to accept the award and reflect on the victory. Listen to who and what she credits for the Barbie with Down Syndrome win: “There’s so many teams to thank. Not only our Corporate Social Responsibility Team, through Sustainability, DE&I, and Philanthropy, but the Brand Team just really hit it home with its very, very special launch…”

Did you get that: “The Brand Team just really hit it home with its very, very special launch.”

That launch propelled Barbie with Down Syndrome to be a momentary best seller. Even though sales have softened since, the earned media launch was likely worth millions of dollars in equivalent advertising value – and practically priceless for the fawning media coverage.

In fact, over 94% of online coverage highlighted Mattel’s commitment to representation.
The outreach yielded 6,000 media placements and more than 7.6 billion media impressions – one of the biggest media successes in the history of Barbie.

So, when we return, I’ll answer the Big Question.

The Big Question

The Big Question is: Why did Barbie evolve from a single, unrealistic body shape into a broadly diverse product line which even includes a doll with Down syndrome?

It seems to me that half of the answer is motivated self-interest. Sixty-four years of evolution in cultural attitudes and consumer demand have made it in Mattel’s financial interest to expand the Barbie product line to offer diverse and inclusive options – as a means to sell the most dolls. In fact, Adweek reports that diverse dolls now account for “half of the Mattel brand’s sales.”

But pure financial interest is clearly not the only reason for such widespread inclusivity. The other half of the answer is that Mattel’s current leaders view their corporate responsibility differently than Mattel’s early leaders, including Ruth Handler who served as Mattel’s first president until 1975.

Robin Gerber, a biographer, wrote that Ruth Handler was “not political or prone to dwell on the root of cultural standards… Ruth had no interest, time, or patience for debates over the political or social impact of products.”

For instance, in the book ‘Barbie and Ruth’, the biographer notes that Ruth Handler hired a Freudian psychologist and marketing expert to “tell her how to sell the most Barbie dolls, not how to make the doll a proxy for an emerging feminist version of women.”

As Ruth Handler told Connie Chung: Ruth Handler: “I never dreamed of trying to change the world. I wanted to show the world as it is.”

Portrait of Lisa McKnight
Lisa McKnight

In contrast, my sense is that Mattel’s new leaders do want to use their stewardship of the Barbie product line to change the world for the better. In particular, leaders like Lisa McKnight who beyond her Mattel duties volunteers for several non-profit organizations dedicated to the empowerment of women and girls.

Lisa McKnight worked her way up at Mattel to Senior Vice President and General Manager of Girls’ Brands in 2015. Just a year later, Mattel released the first Barbie dolls with diverse body types. For the next three years, McKnight was asked to focus exclusively on the Barbie product line, during which time sales recovered and she rapidly expanded the diversity of Barbie Fashionistas dolls. McKnight was then promoted to Mattel’s Global Head of the Barbie & Dolls Portfolio in 2019; the year that the Barbie Fashionistas line introduced dolls with medical conditions and disabilities. McKnight has been promoted twice more since then, most recently in 2023 when she became Mattel’s Chief Brand Officer and won the Toy Association’s Award for Marketer of the Year. In the same year, the feminist Barbie Movie became an international blockbuster and Mattel debuted Barbie with Down Syndrome.

Well done Mattel. Well done National Down Syndrome Society. Well done Lisa McKnight.

You’ve been listening to Meaningful Impact, where we highlight inspiring stories of mutually-beneficial corporate citizenship which achieve a triple win:

  1. a win for a company, in this case: Mattel
  2. a win for a cause, in this case: inclusivity, particularly Down syndrome inclusivity
  3. a win for a purpose-driven leader, in this case Lisa McKnight and actually quite a few of her co-workers at Mattel

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