Why Barbie Wants to Show Dads Playing Dolls With Their Daughters

Mattel eyes relevancy and inclusiveness

After introducing a diverse new array of dolls, the brand wants to shift consumers' perceptions about its cultural relevance.

After debuting Barbie’s new look in January 2016, the brand set its sights on another ambitious marketing push: Get consumers to like Barbie for more than just her looks. The marketers at Mattel wanted to shift consumers’ focus to Barbie’s purpose and get parents “to reappraise the role of Barbie in their world and to really see Barbie as a vehicle for storytelling and imagination,” explained Michelle Chidoni, Mattel’s vp of global brand communications.

While Barbie began working with BBDO in October 2015 to showcase the “imaginative possibilities,” as its first work for the brand dubbed them, of playing with Barbie, the unveiling of its three new body types, seven new skin tones, 22 eye colors and 24 hairstyles allowed the brand to stress purpose-driven messaging in its marketing. Cut to 2017: Barbie debuts its “#DadsWhoPlayBarbie” campaign during the NFL’s AFC Championship Game on Jan. 22 with a 30-second spot called “Doctor.” The effort, from BBDO in San Francisco, shows a father and daughter playing Barbie and features lines like, “I’m a typical man’s man” and “Sundays are always football, and now that gets interrupted with a little Barbie time.”

How did this happen? Why was Barbie advertising during Sunday football? And what did the audience think?

It all started with research. “Barbie exists to help girls fulfill their limitless potential,” said Matt Miller, CCO of BBDO in San Francisco. “Once we saw the research [from Barbie’s partnership with Wake Forest University] that proves the more involved a dad is in his daughter’s imaginative play, the more he contributes to her real-life development, we knew dads had to be a part of the brand’s narrative.”


Barbie needed to figure out how to bring dads into the narrative and to do so in a way that felt natural to the iconic brand — while also attracting new eyeballs. “We wanted this work to embody the authentic impact of real dads immersing themselves in their own daughter’s imaginative world,” said Miller. “What you see in the film is real.”


Keep the brand relevant while shifting how people think about Barbie—all while “being disruptive, not just with emotional creative but with where the creative was placed,” noted Chidoni. That’s why Mattel aired the first spot during Sunday football. “The creative as well as the creative placement [by Barbie’s in-house team and its media shop, Starcom Mediavest Group] allowed it to get a cultural conversation going.”


The creative from BBDO featured six real-life daughters and dads. The point? To capture “the emotion of playing, storytelling and imagination through the brand,” said Chidoni. “This was the first piece of advertising content where we’ve specifically focused on a girl’s relationship with her dad.”


While the campaign only kicked off in January, Barbie has already seen its message resonate. The 30-second “Doctor” spot garnered 48 million views during the AFC Championship Game, which exceeded the brand’s expectations by 20 percent. A second spot, “Teacher,” which ran during the Grammys garnered 26 million views while digital work has nabbed 16.8 million views.

This story first appeared in the March 13, 2017, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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