Social Media Gets Bumpy for Barbie


Bald Barbie conversations are happening all over the Internet. Michelle Spelman suggested I write about Michelle Spelman pic it for GTN, but since has already written about it in her Cincinnati Examiner blog, I asked if she would like to share the story and how it has grown even since she wrote about it. If Michelle’s name is familiar, it is because I recently wrote about the Cincinnati’s Game & Toy Industry’s Holiday Gift Guide that she put together highlighting the products invented and produced by Cincy toy/game industry people. 

Michelle: No doubt you’ve heard about the public campaign launched recently on Facebook trying to convince Mattel Inc. to make a “Beautiful and Bald Barbie” doll for children living with hair loss induced by cancer and other diseases. summarized the story beautifully earlier this week. 

This is a classic example of why large and small companies must, not only, engage in social media, but Barbie_headshot_via_ianmacm_on_flickr also must have strategic social media contingency plans in place for navigating public image challenges that can arise.

What started as a simple page on Facebook, grew to a crusade, in a matter of days, that is now over 135 thousand “likes” strong.  The effort has spilled over into all kinds of other social channels like Twitter, YouTube and blogs, and into the mainstream media as well.  Huffington Post, ABC News, USA Today and others have covered this growing appeal.

The initial response from Mattel to the campaign’s organizers was a canned dismissal that legions of individuals have received over the years:  ““Mattel doesn’t accept ideas from outside sources.” 

The “Beautiful and Bald Barbie” group was not dissuaded, pushing on with their efforts to spread the word and gather support.

Once Mattel realized the campaign was picking up steam, they posted this official response on their own Facebook page:

“We appreciate and respect the passion that has been built up for the request for a bald Barbie doll. Mattel is constantly exploring new and different dolls to be added to our line; and as you might imagine, we receive hundreds of passionate requests for various dolls to be added to our collection. Our company is dedicated to supporting a variety of children’s organizations and needs throughout the… year through a multitude of philanthropic activities. In the past 10 years alone, Mattel and the Mattel Children’s Foundation have donated close to $30 million and more than half a million toys to children's hospitals across the country. Our donations benefit countless numbers of boys and girls in children’s hospitals each year who deal with a variety of illnesses and challenges, including cancer.

Learn more about our philanthropy:

That still wasn’t the answer this movement wanted to hear.

The group has expanded their focus from just lobbying for the bald Barbie doll, to spotlighting and appealing to Mattel with real children in the fight of their life.  Fans now upload photos to the Facebook page of their beautiful, bald children and the page administrators choose one of them as their “Warrior of the Week.”  Friends and family members of patients shave their heads as a sign of solidarity and are posting those pictures as well.

“Mattel has a choice of how they want to look at this,” says Krista Neher, CEO of Boot Camp Digital and author of the Social Media Field Guide, “Instead of worrying that their brand will be held hostage by a mob, they might see this as a huge publicity opportunity.  They should look at the reach of this group’s efforts and say to themselves, ‘Wow! We have all this brand passion at work here, what do we do with it?”

Since the advent of social media, brands and the public have been trying to discern how it can be used to leverage influence.  Brands want to influence the public to buy something they sell.  The public finds itself with new power to wield influence over brands and has new expectations as a result.

The behavior of brands and the behavior of the public is changed.  Before social media, mobilizing a cause this quickly required the fuel of high-priced media spin doctors and sensational PR machines to power it.  Today, all it takes is a message typed into a smart phone. 

It’s nothing new for a brand to be hoisted on the shoulders of an enthusiastic public if they love it.  But now, a wistful wish from a single individual can be broadcast instantly to many.  And if that wish resonates, it can become a groundswell of support almost immediately. 

We’ve seen brands like Adidas, Starbucks, Virgin Airlines and Zappos experience the benefits of being closer to the public through social media, while brands like Nestle, Motrin, and United Airlines have all experienced backlashes that threatened to chafe historic reputations in the blink of an eye through unanswered public criticism that spreads like wildfire through social channels.

So how does Mattel maintain their rank among the former group, and avoid being lumped in with the latter?

This isn’t the first time Barbie has found herself in controversy over the years, and it likely won’t be the last.  And while time often heals wounds, it can take a long time to heal a scar.

“Mattel’s social media strategy should include how they will respond to issues similar to ones they’ve faced in the past if, and when, they crop up in the social media space,” says Neher.

Ironically, even the petitioners of the “Beautiful and Bald Barbie” movement are at risk of having their efforts high-jacked.  A myriad of opinions on Barbie herself in this matter have erupted in blog posts, tweets and on the Facebook page threatening to blur the focus. Other entities have already begun jumping into the fray, trying to align with the fashionable cause in some way.  These organizations see the tide rising and that change is imminent.  They are all trying to find a way to position themselves favorably with this movement to be able to play some part in it and exploit it to further their own agendas.

Kevin Dugan, Director of Marketing at Empower MediaMarketing, and co-founder of Cincinnati Social Media Inc. says, “Social media can be used to quickly organize support for a cause. But the cause needs to be realistic about the outcome.  It takes a lot for a company to create a new product – time, money and resources.  It’s not something that will happen quickly – if at all – even if a brand were tapping social media to get consumer input into a product, like Dell for example.”

“Based on my experience with Twitter-based, hashtag campaigns,” Dugan continues, “if I were part of  #baldbarbie, I’d focus less on punishing Mattel and more on finding another well-known doll manufacturer that will embrace this opportunity as passionately as #baldbarbie is. Otherwise it’s bad energy towards a wonderful cause that doesn’t move them towards their goal. And in the end, even if they don’t get a doll made, they’ve raised awareness in the process instead of creating ill will.”

This appears to be exactly what the organizers behind “Beautiful and Bald Barbie” are attempting to do.  They’ve repeatedly posted pleas on their Facebook page and it’s been echoed on Twitter asking fans join an electronic petition to Mattel, while simultaneously insisting that fans be respectful and refrain from boycotting Mattel or otherwise maligning the brand. 

What seems to be a driving force behind this group’s mission is the emotional distress that children – especially females – experience from hair loss because of cultural attitudes.  It is culturally and fashionably optional for males to have hair. This is not the case for females.  Hair is a very gender and beauty-defining feature for them.  Barbie is an evolving symbol of fashion trends and what is aspired to, and yes, like it or not – of what is considered beautiful – by many in our culture.  Supporters of the bald Barbie idea express the belief that Barbie’s iconic image could help influence cultural expectations for females and hair.  A bald Barbie could contribute to a sense of social normalcy and acceptance to a girl who is bald, which would make life a little bit easier.  This is the heart of the matter for them.

Fred Held, a former VP of Marketing on the Barbie team of the past, thinks the creation of a “Beautiful and Bald Barbie” doll would distract from the brand’s positioning.  He says, “Creating another doll, who would be Barbie’s friend, would be my strategy.  Then, Barbie could do a lot of good things for her friend.”

So, what happens next?  Should Mattel make the bald doll or a friend instead?  Should they silently maintain their published position and hope that it all fades away?

Should the legions of rallying fans keep up the pressure on Mattel? Or should they take their momentum and focus it somewhere else?

One thing is certain.  Whatever happens next will play out publicly, thanks to social media.


10 thoughts

  1. Interesting update…..
    This was just posted by the administrators of the “Beautiful and Bald Barbie! Let’s see if we can get it made” facebook page:
    “Mattel recently reached out to us and invited us to a meeting at their headquarters in Los Angeles. It was a really positive experience and was really great and nice to meet face-to-face with members of the Barbie team and from the Mattel’s Children’s Foundation. The goal of meeting was to start a dialogue about our campaign. We are thrilled that Mattel agreed to keep the conversation going. We will report back when we have more information.”

  2. This is a major opportunity for Mattel as well as for a savvy retailer.
    Target or ToysRUS should agree to carry the doll as an exclusive.
    They could make a low run, say 25,000-50,000 and have them on shelves within 6 months. They could then ride the wave of positive publicity to the bank.
    Also, just as Barbie had the friend in a wheelchair, this doll should be Barbie’s friend.

  3. However have bald, sick children felt beautiful before last month when this Facebook page started? I remember when parents knew they were the source for making their children feel loved and beautiful. I recall, it seems like only yesterday, when dolls were toys, not causes; escapes from reality, not reminders of one’s difficult plight in life. I’m so old school.
    Incongruently, the proponents of a bald Barbie suggest accessories, like wigs, scarves and hats. “You’re bald, you’re beautiful. Now, here are some nifty items to cover that noggin.” I’m still trying to figure out the thought process there.
    Many of the folks in favor of this are fervent, ardent…vicious. I deigned to disagree online with these concerned citizens about a bald Barbie and their threats of a Mattel boycott if their demands are not met. Such hellfire and brimstone were heaped upon me by these tender-hearted souls as to bring to mind the archaic expression “tarred and feathered.”
    People don’t like their bubbles burst, I know. “Liking” a “cause” on Facebook makes folks feel so good about themselves with a click of a mouse. It is an easy pat on the back. But it is an empty gesture, nothing more. Faith, hope and love are the keys to endurance in trying times. One doesn’t get that from a doll. It is the parents’ job, not Mattel’s, to make their children feel accepted and loved. Hug them, kiss their little bald heads and tell them they are beautiful. People may still stare when you are in public. To think they won’t because of a bald doll is a pipe dream. But, it won’t matter if your children know they are beautiful, loved and adored. You provide that comfort to them. It is your job.
    Imagine the truly life-changing difference it would make to cancer-stricken children if all those “likes” donated to cancer organizations or visited patients on an oncology unit. That, however, takes effort. Sadly, we are becoming a nation of “likes,” without substance. As The Bard said, “…sound and fury, signifying nothing.

  4. Mary Kay: It seems there are more toys being made available as time goes on that are designed to meet therapeutic needs of children.
    Often, the families who need it the most don’t realize there are companies and organizations that focus on creating access to those types of products.
    Families need direction to find them. This is where therapists and hospital Child Life departments become critical allies.
    Social media is now also a powerful resource to find special needs products and therapeutic toys…. and, as it turns out, to ask for something specific (like a bald Barbie).
    Thanks for weighing in Mary Kay!

  5. Great post Michelle. I’m not too thrilled with the bald Barbie idea. Here’s why: I think it’s unnecessary to put ALL parents of girls who roam the Barbie aisle at (insert store name here) in the position of having to explain the devastating effects of cancer to their four- or five-year old child. Awareness is one thing; this would take it to a whole new level that some parents, and some children may not be ready for. Alternatively, I DO believe it would be a great idea to have ANY doll-maker create a brand in the likeness of children afflicted with cancer, and perhaps sell it through the therapeutic toy/game market – Not through mass retailers.

  6. Kathleen, you make a very valid point when you talk about the way adults view the world being different from the way children view the world.
    Thank you so much for taking the time to share your thoughts and observations.
    “Positive Exposure” is a beautiful mission! I had the chance to see the exhibit when it was at the Cincinnati Museum Center! The message that “different” doesn’t mean “ugly” is so powerful. I highly recommend readers take a peek at this series of beautiful portraits.

  7. As the parent of an amazing 12 year old girl, with a neuromuscular condition, I would like to share some anecdotal observations. My daughter never wants attention called to her leg braces and only she is allowed to talk about her condition. It is off-limits for us to bring it up. On the flip side, she definitely wanted the Molly American Girl Doll (AGD) because Molly wears glasses (as does my daughter) and she also wanted the AGD wheel chair and cast/crutches set. Even some of her friends wanted the wheelchair because of my daughter. This is a sensitive issue and as Mr. Held suggests, this is the perfect opportunity for important marketing research to determine whether children would like a “bald” Barbie or a “bald” friend of Barbie. Perhaps “Bald and Beautiful Barbie” is based on the way adults view the world, vs. children. Other research might be considered into whether this looks exploitive of Mattel, or whether this is offensive to people living with Albinism, Down Syndrome, etc. who don’t have dolls which represent them. As someone who has worked extensively with Positive Exposure ( and Everybody Counts, in Cincinnati, the important point here is that awareness has been raised and people are expanding their definition of what is beautiful and becoming more accepting of the shared humanity we have, regardless of difference. Mr. Dugan is right to point out that the objective is bigger than just the issue with Mattel. There are important social and business issues to be considered and this “Bald and Beautiful Barbie” wagon doesn’t need to be hitched to just the Mattel star.

  8. Anita: Thank you for sharing your thoughts here Anita! Many of the people I talked to, and many of the commenters that have posted their point of view on other articles that have been published previously online, share you opinion for sure.
    Fred, I especially appreciate the chance to hear your past experiences insights and real life studies of the subject. Thank you again for your willingness to share your thoughts.
    –Michelle Spelman

  9. Thanks for posting my comment on creating a friend of Barbie who would be bald allowing Barbie to help her through her treatment.
    Many years ago when I was at Mattel, I was asked to create a product line for all children with challenges.
    After we had created some prototype dolls and accessories we did the responsible thing and interviewed those very children.
    None of these special kids with challenges wanted dolls with obvious challenges. They wanted typical dolls and other products.
    Before creating a bald friend of Barbie, I would interview those kids who have lost their hair because of their treatment for cancer and other diseases and injuries.
    My guess is the kids will not want a Bald Friend of Barbie. Check it out for yourselves.

  10. Personally speaking, I think a bald Barbie might make some little girls feel better about themselves, but I don’t think it would make much of a dent in our cultural attitude towards hair. I think Mattel is right in responding that they cannot consider all outside submissions.

Leave a Reply