BBDO San Francisco Puts an Empowering Spin on Barbie

By Erik Oster 

Over the course of its history, Mattel’s Barbie brand has received its fair share of criticism for promoting an unrealistic body image and portraying women as incompetent, shallow and materialistic. Complaints of the former became widespread enough to lead to the coining of the term “Barbie Syndrome” to refer to individuals with an unhealthy desire to emulate the doll’s unrealistic proportions (with Ukrainian model Valeria Lukyanova as perhaps the most famous example).

The 1992 release of Teen Talk Barbie was met with widespread condemnation for lines such as “Will we ever have enough clothes?” and, especially, “Math class is tough!” with the brand eventually pulling dolls who spoke the latter phrase. There was even a Simpsons episode parodying the doll. 

Despite some recent changes, such controversies are not solely a relic of the distant past for the brand. In 2010, it released the book “I Can Be A Computer Engineer” which, contrary to its title, depicted Barbie as an incompetent who needed the help of two male friends to fix a computer virus
It’s not exactly a surprise, then, that BBDO’s first work for the client aims to combat such an image.


Created by BBDO San Francisco in conjunction with BBDO New York, the online spot “Imagine the Possibilities”–which breaks today on the Barbie YouTube channel–seeks to reposition the brand as one that can be empowering for young girls. It opens with question “What happens when girls are free to imagine they can be anything?” before showing a young girl giving a lecture on the human brain to a class of college students. Other girls are shown pretending to be a veterinarian, soccer coach, museum tour guide and businesswoman. Near the end of the spot, the action cuts from the original classroom scene to a girl enacting the scenario with her Barbie dolls, thereby demonstrating the link between the dolls and the process of building one’s imagination.

“Barbie was originally created to show girls they have choices, a fact that most people have forgotten,” said Matt Miller, executive creative director, BBDO San Francisco. “So we set out to show everyone how girls really play and demonstrate that, when girls play with Barbie, they actually play out the possibilities their futures hold.”

Evelyn Mazzocco, global senior vice president and general manager of Barbie, told Adweek the effort is the start of an “ongoing brand evolution that is designed to encourage parents to reappraise the role Barbie can play in [a] child’s life,” adding, “This ongoing initiative is designed to remind today’s parents that through the power of imagination, Barbie allows girls to explore their limitless potential.” 

BBDO’s initial work, which BBDO New York president and CEO John Osborn called “just the beginning of our ongoing partnership with Barbie…to create a movement in support of this iconic brand and help convert parents into brand advocates,” seems a clear indication of what to expect in the future as the agency will undoubtedly continue to mine the imagination and empowerment angle.

But will that message be taken seriously by a brand that so recently conveyed the opposite? Mazzocco’s statement to Adweek that “Sometimes adults use Barbie as a way to ignite a cultural conversation, but we have been and continue to be a brand for girls first,” comes across as a manipulative way to silence criticism, which doesn’t exactly instill confidence. 

Agency: BBDO San Francisco
Client: Barbie
Title: “Imagine the Possibilities”
Chief Creative Officer, Worldwide: David Lubars
Executive Creative Director: Matt Miller
Executive Creative Director: Steve Rutter
Sr. Copywriter: Adam Balogh
Sr. Art Director: Jason Moussalli
Executive Producer: Patti Bott
Senior Producer: Lisa Christman
Business Affairs: Danielle Ivicic
Managing Director: Marc Burns
Senior Account Director: Kim Fredkin
Management Supervisor: Nicole Dongara
Account Supervisor: Nicholas Roth
Director of Business Development: Crystal Rix
Senior Planner: Alaina Crystal
Production Company: Slim Pictures Inc.
Director: Karen Cunningham
Director of Photography: Jeff Cutter
Executive Producer: Tom Weissferdt
Line Producer: Suzie Greene Tedesco
Music House: De Wolfe Music
Edit / Visual Effects House: No6
Editor: Andrea MacArthur
Executive Producer: Crissy de Simone
Post Producer: Yole Barrera
Flame Artist: Verdi Sevenhuysen
Colorist: Bob Festa at Company 3
Andrew Know Music Productions