Bald Barbie conversations are happening all over the Internet. Michelle Spelman suggested I write about 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. Forbes.com 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 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: http://corporate.mattel.com/about-us/philanthropy/default.aspx”
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.