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Courtesy of Mattel

Jobs + Skills07.21.14

Barbie Can’t Compete In Today’s Toy Market

Looks aren’t enough anymore. In fact, they aren’t even necessary.

When Mattel introduced the Entrepreneur Barbie in June, the toy manufacturing giant probably hoped she would become an inspirational doll for young girls to look up to in the women-forward, entrepreneurial age.

Unfortunately for her parent company, posing as a successful businesswoman calling the shots wasn’t enough for Barbie’s comeback as America’s must-have doll. She simply isn’t a thoughtfully designed toy. Sales of educational toys that stimulate brain development in children have become the center of a market fueled by research, and companies trying to compete need to encourage young people to imagine, create, and even build something new while they’re playing.

According to a paper out of Temple University and the University of Delaware, the National Retail Federation boasted sales in the hundreds of billions thanks to educational toys in 2004. Like the authors say in the paper, “good toys naturally build social skills, academic skills and bigger brains.” It’s not just grown ups who prefer that their young loved ones play with educational toys; young people today grow up playing games on gadgets and using computers at extremely young ages, so they also expect their toys to do more. We see this proof in LEGO’s consistent revenue increase and the popularity of highly interactive toy companies in recent years.

Recent splashes in the toy market show that trend is still going strong. In 2008, littleBits launched as an open source library of electronic modules that look so fun, even grownups want to get their hands on the tiny magnets for prototyping and learning. CitiBlocs, founded in 2009, makes a line of wooden construction blocks that allows children to use their imagination to discover how bridges span great distance and towers can stand tall and strong. Goldieblox caught on with a viral video in 2013 marketing its engineering kits for little girls, to inspire the next generation of female engineers with construction pieces created from a female perspective.

As a result, buying a mere figurine is no longer thrilling for a young child who is used to the excitement of games on their smart devices. Stacked against such innovative models for toys, Entrepreneur Barbie carries a clutch, briefcase, tablet, and smartphone. She’s so career-oriented she has a LinkedIn profile page. And she’s backed by 10 real-life, successful women entrepreneurs called her chief inspiration officers (CIO), including Reshma Saujani, founder of the nonprofit Girls Who Code.

But she’s still just a doll, essentially the same ol’ Barbie from the 1950s. Even her historic sex appeal no longer cuts it in selling toys nowadays.

“The problem with Barbie is no matter what she’s doing, the thing she’s really telling young girls is that you can be anything, as long as you look good first.” Jo Davies, founder and CEO of ZAK Media Group, writes in The Guardian.

If Mattel wanted to focus on Barbie’s intellect and work ethics, it was also didn’t help to pose her in Sports Illustrated’s recent swimsuit edition as a marketing ploy, then have her write an “op-ed” piece on its site arguing that a feature in SI is a move for female empowerment.

When she learned to talk in 1992, Barbie’s first words were “math is tough.” She seems to have come a long way in developing an entrepreneurial spirit, but at her essence she’s still the teenage fashion model from 1959. In her glory days, the little girls holding her might have envied her, but today, Barbie is merely a pretty, plastic face that can’t connect. And she doesn’t have the smarts to engage today’s intelligent children, or their parents.