June 19, 2023
By CHRISLIU714 SILVER, North Andover, Massachusetts
CHRISLIU714 SILVER, North Andover, Massachusetts
6 articles 4 photos 0 comments

Favorite Quote:
“Today is the oldest you've ever been, and the youngest you'll ever be again.”― Eleanor Roosevelt

In the aftermath of World War II, the United States became a global power, and the country’s economy began to flourish after years of struggles, leading to a shift to consumerism. For instance, the standard of living improved, prices became more stable, and life was centered around cars. Amidst the Golden Age of the United States, the first Barbie doll was introduced in 1959. The Barbie dolls were soon a bestseller due to the company’s effective advertising and marketing techniques, and they became an icon in the United States. However, Barbie was not just a toy, it was also a propeller of the American economy. The creation of Barbie profoundly influenced the consumer culture of the United States as it adopted innovative business strategies and enforced materialistic values, and its impacts are still seen today. 

The idea of Barbie was created by Ruth Handler. Ruth Handler, originally Ruth Moskowicz, was born into a Polish-Jewish immigrant family in Denver, Colorado in 1916. Her father, Jacob Moskowicz, immigrated to the United States in 1907 by arriving on Ellis Island, and as a blacksmith, he was sent to Denver to work for the railroad industry. Ruth Moskowicz was the youngest of 10 children in her family. At the age of six months, she began to live with her older sister. During Ruth’s childhood, working at her sister’s drugstore piqued her interest in business. In 1932, Ruth met Elliot Handler, an aspiring artist, and they were married six years later. The Handlers were actively involved in businesses. In 1945, along with their colleague Harold Matson, the Handlers founded the company Mattel in a garage in Los Angeles, California. Initially, Mattel produced Ukuleles after Arthur Godfrey, a television broadcaster and entertainer, sparked the popularity of the Ukulele on multiple television shows. Mattel quickly expanded its business by producing more popular toys such as toy guns and dollhouse furniture.

In 1956, during a family trip in Europe, Ruth Handler visited a toy store and was inspired by the Bild Lilli doll, a German fashion doll that was designed to resemble the figure of an adult woman. Ruth Handler believed that there should be a toy for older children who have outgrown baby dolls. Therefore, Handler bought the doll and shared her idea with others at Mattel because she wanted to produce three-dimensional dolls that were similar to the Bild Lilli dolls. On March 9, 1959, Mattel introduced the creation of Barbie, a 12-inch tall plastic doll with a curvaceous body, at the American Toy Fair in New York City. Handler named the doll after her daughter, Barbara Millicent Roberts, and she conceptualized Barbie as a high school student who lived in a fictional town in Wisconsin. In addition, the doll’s clothes and accessories could be purchased separately. 

Mattel had expected the potential controversy of the design of Barbie before the doll’s introduction, so the company adopted a way to circumvent the issue to ensure effective advertisement of its products. Before the launch of Barbie, Mattel conducted a market study that investigated the perspectives of the mothers on Barbie’s adult woman figure. Many criticized that Barbie was not an appropriate doll for girls due to its sex appeal. A mother suggested that she did not like the influence of Barbie on her daughter, and she wished her daughter could stay young and naive for longer. Another mother believed that Barbie should be a decoration for a men’s bar rather than a toy doll. Despite the opposition of the parents, Mattel directly advertised Barbie via television commercials to children. The first Barbie commercial aired on Walt Disney’s television program, “The Mickey Mouse Club”,  in 1959, featuring dolls in different outfits and emphasizing one’s aspiration to become like Barbie to attract the viewers’ attention. In the commercial, a woman sings, “Barbie’s small and so petite, her clothes and figure look so neat. Someday I’m gonna be exactly like you, till then I know just what I’ll do. Barbie, beautiful Barbie, I’ll make myself believe that I am you.” The commercial was a successful turning point for Mattel as the company sold 300,000 dolls during the first year, drastically increasing the popularity of Barbie. Mattel set a precedent for television commercials during a period when advertisements were mostly seen in newspapers. Mattel’s innovative advertising approach inspired many other companies to do the same. Soon after, different companies began to compete with one another to create more appealing commercials to promote their products and increase revenue for their businesses. 

Mattel continued to influence the consumer culture in the United States by utilizing various marketing strategies. The company extended its product line by manufacturing items related to Barbie, such as doll house furniture, clothes, and accessories, which compelled consumers to make more purchases to expand their Barbie collection. Mattel also designed Barbie dolls that participated in different activities or professions that were deemed suitable for women in the 1950s, such as fashion models, tennis players, teachers, nurses, and ballerinas. The diverse Barbie collection achieved Ruth Handler’s goal as she initially claimed that “Barbie was created so little girls could have choices about their futures”. Mattel also sold limited edition lines of dolls that had more sophisticated designs, and they were usually seen in boutique stores with higher prices to increase the exclusivity of the product. By evoking the buyers’ desire for exclusivity and novelty, Mattel successfully drove consumer demands. By 2009, 90% of girls from ages three to ten years old in the United States ages owned at least one Barbie doll.

Mattel’s wise marketing strategy enforced the materialistic values in the United States and stimulated economic growth. Affected by the Great Depression and World War II, thrifting, and frugality became prevailing norms among American society. However, the creation of Barbie and the doll’s appealing wardrobe expanded consumer culture where people spend more money rather than saving. Americans became more materialistic as they were prompted to purchase more consumer products to find fulfillment, which helped bolster the economy. Moreover, Mattel recognized the trends of American society and established a team that analyzed cultural patterns, especially among suburban teenagers because the suburban population drastically increased after World War II. Mattel exemplified the suburban ideals of high consumption and desire for abundant and luxurious goods by designing glamorous cars, houses, and clothes for Barbie. As a result, the creation of Barbie demonstrated an idealistic life for Americans, encouraging mass consumption in pursuit of a similar lifestyle as Barbie. As historian Lizabeth Cohen writes in the book A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America, mass consumption is a civic responsibility rather than personal satisfaction in the post-war era. Therefore, the creation of Barbie was beneficial for the financial recovery of the United States since it promoted mass consumption and represented Americans’ aspirations for a strong post-war economy.

Until this day, Mattel is maintaining its effective marketing strategies. The company has increased the variety of dolls by diversifying Barbie dolls’ professions, ethnicities, races, and physical characteristics, which attracts more groups of consumers. Mattel continues to reinvent Barbie to maintain the longevity of the brand by suiting the designs of the dolls to the changing cultural and fashion trends. The company has also improved the creativity of Barbie commercials to captivate consumers by incorporating consumers’ experiences with playing with Barbie dolls. 

Barbie dolls revolutionized the consumer culture of the United States. They helped revive the nation’s post-war economy and promoted civilians to purchase desired goods. Mattel utilized innovative advertising techniques like sponsoring popular cartoons on television to popularize Barbie among the younger generations. Moreover, Mattel expanded the Barbie collection by creating attractive wardrobes, cars, and houses, which not only encouraged materialism but also depicted an idealistic and luxurious lifestyle for Americans. Therefore, Barbie has been both a popular toy and an icon for America’s consumer culture since 1959.  

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