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Author Topic: Barbie's boyfriend trying to join the cool crowd  (Read 791 times)
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« on: February 25, 2011, 10:02:11 AM »

By Andrea Chang and Meg James/ LOS ANGELES TIMES
On the eve of his 50th birthday, the doll that defined boyish American urbanity is pursuing a comeback - proclaiming his love for Barbie on billboards in New York and Los Angeles.
Critics raved about his appearance in Toy Story 3.

And in a new online reality show, Genuine Ken: The Search for the Great American Boyfriend, eight clean-cut, real-life contestants vie to be judged worthy of Barbie. The ideal winner: a guy with style who knows how to cook, surf, listen and be overindulgent.

The push by Mattel Inc. to make Ken cool - particularly among adults - represents a broader campaign to increase sales as the doll hits the big 5-0.

The company waged a similar campaign when Barbie passed the milestone two years ago.

Mattel executives say they are relaxing their tight control over the images of Barbie and Ken because they've missed marketing opportunities by letting Ken - introduced to the world in March 1961 in red swim trunks, sandals and a yellow towel - turn into, well, a square.

"What we realized a few years ago was 'Wait a second; there are people having more fun with the brand than we were,'" said Stephanie Cota, Mattel's senior vice president of global marketing for girls brands.

"Part of the journey that we've been on is figuring out how to have fun with the Barbie brand without making fun (of it)."

It's a delicate balance: Too much self-mockery could be interpreted as a signal that Mattel isn't serious about the brand.

Walt Disney Co.'s Pixar Animation Studios poked fun at Ken in its Oscar- nominated Toy Story3, in which the doll shows up wearing short shorts, an open shirt and a blue ascot, seemingly oblivious to his main purpose to serve as arm candy for Barbie.

Some saw Ken's love of fashion and his gold-and-purple "dream house" in Toy Story 3 as a sly wink at longtime rumors of a conflicted sexuality - and an example of how the brand can appeal to multiple markets.

Barbie has long been the alpha female.

Sean McGowan, a toy analyst with Needham & Co., estimated that Ken makes up less than 10 percent of the Barbie line's sales. Ken's appearance in Toy Story 3, he said, could have backfired.

"Ken stole the show 'cause he's a clothes magnet," McGowan said. "That's risky, but it worked. He winds up looking cool. That's a fine line between parody and pushing the envelope."

Barbie, meanwhile, has been enjoying a resurgence after a period of turmoil and slumping sales. About a decade ago, Mattel watched as its premier toy brand was eclipsed by MGA Entertainment Inc.'s Bratz, a line of sultry dolls whose street style made Barbie seem stuck in the past.

The Barbie line, which in the late 1990s commanded as much as 85 percent of the fashion doll market, tumbled to about 60percent, according to Gerrick Johnson, a BMO Capital Markets toy analyst.

Keeping Barbie and Ken in sync with the times has presented challenges, and today's fashion-doll category is more crowded than ever. Barbie (full name Barbara Millicent Roberts) has been trying to defend her shelf space against lines such as BFC Ink, Bratz, Disney Princess, iCarly, Liv, Moxie Girlz, Wizards of Waverly Place and even Monster High dolls, also made by Mattel.

Well off their peak, Barbie sales, which include the Ken line, account for about $1.2billion annually at the wholesale level, analysts estimate.

"Mattel has kind of turned a corner," Johnson said. "They were wandering in the wilderness for a while."
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