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How the Barbie movie marketing machine tapped into a cultural zeitgeist

The Barbie movie arrives in theatres on Friday, but a tidal wave of hot pink has preceded it, thanks to a supercharged marketing campaign that lends a whole new meaning to rose-coloured glasses.

Canadian designer Hilary MacMillan, footwear brand Aldo have launched Barbie collections

Women walk by a pink movie advertisement in a mall.

The Barbie movie arrives in theatres on Friday, but a tidal wave of hot pink — Pantone 219-C, to be exact — has preceded it, thanks to a supercharged marketing campaign that lends a whole new meaning to rose-coloured glasses.

Mattel, the company behind Barbie, has inked crossover deals with dozens of companies to promote both the movie and the famous doll herself. It comes a few years after the iconic toy, long criticized for promoting unrealistic beauty standards for young girls, was rebranded to be more inclusive.

Fashion brands like Forever 21, Gap and Primark have designed official clothing lines with Barbie in mind; luggage company Beis released a collection of bright pink travel gear ahead of the movie; and NYX Cosmetics released a Barbie-inspired makeup set.

Aldo, the Montreal-headquartered footwear brand, also snagged an official branding deal — a collaboration that materialized after a sneak peek of the Barbie movie was released, according to Alison Neill, the company's senior director of global brand strategy.

"We think it can sell at any time of the year, but we have certainly benefited from the cultural moment [that] Barbie is having right now," she told CBC News.

The "Barbiecore" fashion trend — which favours hot pinks and other vibrant colours — started picking up last year as Barbie re-entered the zeitgeist. Neill noted that while trends come and go, they tend to have a longer lifespan when they have a cultural tie-in.

Aldo's collection has been popular on TikTok, where the hashtag #TikTokMadeMeBuyIt led to some of its success, said Neill. The company saw its e-commerce traffic increase by 48 per cent when the collection was released in late June, and its Barbie platform shoe sold out within 24 hours. (Some other products sold out within 72 hours.)

"We tried to time the collection for this launch to coincide with the kind of peak-marketing hype of the movie," Neill said.

Nostalgia, annoyance — it's complicated

The first Barbie trailer was released in May, along with character posters that quickly turned into an online trend when Warner Bros. released a meme-generator for fans to use.

The campaign to market the movie has only gotten louder — and pinker — since. Though, it seems, not everyone is enjoying it.

I expect to enjoy the movie; but the marketing is like a tsunami

—@j_smithcameron

For many, the doll's renewed relevance conjures feelings of nostalgia — one of the elements that Canadian fashion designer Hilary MacMillan tried to capture in her own Barbie-inspired clothing line. Her 15-piece capsule collection features a mix of styles for women and children — and is pink as far as the eye can see.

"We actually didn't know the film was coming out when we first were in talks about the collection, because it was back in 2021," MacMillan told CBC News from her Toronto studio.

When Barbie was announced, she said, "We were like: Here, it's coming, Barbiecore — we're going to be here."

"It's going to be an explosion of all things pink, all things Barbie. And so we felt like it was the perfect time. It all lined up perfectly for us."

The Barbie doll has had a complex history since it was launched in 1959. While it was invented to be a career-oriented doll for young girls, its prototype — blond, white, impossibly thin — has since been frequently upheld as a symbol of unattainable beauty standards.

A new line of Barbie dolls introduced in 2016 was aimed at bringing the brand into the 21st century, with more racial and body diversity. Some of the dolls used wheelchairs or prosthetic limbs; a later collection introduced Barbies who were bald or who had vitiligo, a skin pigmentation condition.

"They've really dedicated a lot of effort and time into creating dolls of more sizes and of races and of different occupations, and kind of really being a brand that's trying to show that girls and women can do whatever they want," said MacMillan.

"I think the direction that they're heading in is kind of what speaks to our brand, because we are so cognitive and aware of diversity and size inclusion and offering more things to women."

Products that make you scratch your head

Sameer Hosany, a professor of marketing at the Royal Holloway University of London who has written about the brand's long-term popularity, predicts there will be winners and losers from the Barbie marketing campaign, depending on how much a product aligns with the brand.

Even beyond the movie, he said, "a lot of the corporations are tapping [into] the renaissance of Barbie itself — and that's why you would see [a] collaboration wave from designer brands to accessories, high fashion, shoes."

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Ryan Gosling decided to crash CBC reporter Eli Glasner’s live TV hit on the Barbie pink carpet in Toronto.

"It's just because of that immediate fit of Barbie cutting across a number of product categories and brands," said Hosany, which is what makes a potential collaboration successful. The Lego Movie, for example, wouldn't warrant the same level of brand collaboration, he said.

A handful of Barbie-inspired products might make you scratch your head. There is a Barbie Xbox, a Barbie rug, Barbie candles, glassware and electric toothbrushes. Progressive Insurance released a Barbie-inspired commercial starring Flo, the fictional salesperson who regularly appears in its ads.

At Burger King locations in Brazil, customers can order a "Barbie burger," which is a beef patty paired with cheese, bacon bits and slathered in a bright pink sauce that the fast-food chain described as "smoky."

Burger King Brazil unveils limited edition Pink Burger and Barbie Shake to celebrate the release of <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/Barbie?src=hash&amp;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#Barbie</a>.<br><br>Out tomorrow, July 12. <a href="https://t.co/EM98BroZvz">pic.twitter.com/EM98BroZvz</a>

&mdash;@PopCrave

Cross-promotion can be a high-risk strategy, said Hosany, as each brand's reputation depends on the other's. There's also the risk of "brand dilution," in which a brand's reputation or value suffers because it releases a product at odds with its usual standards.

"A lot of this collaboration has been sort of very carefully selected," said Hosany.

Despite a number of other companies jumping on the Barbiecore trend, putting their brightest pink products on display, MacMillan said she isn't concerned about the ubiquity of the Barbie marketing campaign when it comes to her brand.

"I think our collection offers [something] a little bit different. It's not just like Barbie logos slashed across bucket hats or sweaters," she said.

"It's a little bit more elevated, Barbie-inspired, you know — nods of it. We have a specific kind of client for that. And so the more than merrier is kind of my mantra on it."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jenna Benchetrit

Journalist

Jenna Benchetrit is a web and radio journalist for CBC News. She works primarily with the entertainment team and occasionally covers business and general assignment stories. A Montrealer based in Toronto, Jenna holds a master's degree in journalism from Toronto Metropolitan University. You can reach her at jenna.benchetrit@cbc.ca.

    With files from Deana Sumanac and Teghan Beaudette

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