58 years ago today, Barbara Millicent Roberts made her debut at the American Toy Fair in New York City. Also known as Barbie, she stood 11 inches tall, sported blond hair and wore a black and white swimsuit, complete with accessories like sunglasses, high-heeled shoes, and hoop earrings.
Ruth Handler, cofounder of Mattel, created Barbie after seeing her young daughter ignore her baby dolls and play make-believe with paper dolls of adult women. Handler named her new doll after her daughter, and it became the first doll in the US with an adult body.
Barbie debuted at an opportune time – the 1950s saw the post-war boom and the rise of the suburban middle class. Children were becoming a new group of citizens called “teenagers,” and television was taking off as an advertising medium. In 1955, Mattel became the first company to air commercial spots to children with its sponsorship of the “Mickey Mouse Club.” Mattel used its sponsorship to introduce Barbie to America.
Despite its popularity, Barbie has been a controversial product. In the 1950s, the large majority of toys for young girls were baby dolls, designed to teach young girls skills needed to be a mother. Instead, Barbie was a teenage fashion model – she represented what women could be – independent, famous, wealthy, popular, and yes, sexy.
Over the years, Barbie evolved from a fashion model to a career woman – holding a number of jobs, including an airline stewardess, astronaut, doctor, even president. Critics of the doll said that Barbie encouraged materialism and fostered a negative and unrealistic body image for girls.
Nevertheless, demand for Barbie soared, and over the decades, Mattel sold over a billion Barbies (and all her accessories and friends). Her staying power can be attributed to her adaptability to societal norms – she’s changed her look, friends, fashion, and cultural norms to keep Barbie current for little girls everywhere.
Her icon status is one that is rarely achieved by toys – Andy Warhol created a painting of Barbie in 1985, she’s been featured at the Louvre, and for her 50th birthday, she had a runway show at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in New York.
In recent years, sales of Barbie has been declining sharply. In response, Mattel has added more diversity to the Barbie franchise, with more dolls of color and of different sizes.
Recently, Mattel released a number of ads that target the parents, reminding them of their girls’ potential. In October 2015, the brand released a spot that highlighted Barbie and the power of imagination. Global SVP and GM of Barbie told Adweek that the campaign was to “remind today’s parents that through the power of imagination, Barbie allows girls to explore their limitless potential.”
Earlier this year, Mattel targeted dads with a spot that aired during the NFL playoffs. In the spot, Dad’s football watching is interrupted by Barbie time with his daughter, for which he couldn’t be happier about.