Posted At: Feburary 15, 2012 2:00 PM
by Savannah Bass
Over the years, America has seen it all: rock star Barbie, lifeguard Barbie, princess Barbie, tattooed Barbie and a pregnant Barbie with a plastic, removable baby inside her abdomen. Mattel, the company behind Barbie dolls for more than 50 years, has often found itself in the middle of controversy for portraying Barbie with unrealistic physical features and standards of beauty that appear unattainable for its target audience of young girls.
Amidst controversy, one would imagine that Mattel would be receptive to consumer suggestions about creating a specialty Barbie missing her most beloved accessory—her hair. The proposed Barbie could help Mattel’s image as well as show a more philanthropic side to the company.
The Facebook group Beautiful and Bald Barbie, started by Jane Bingham and Beckie Sypin, aims to promote different standards of beauty, showing that bald can be beautiful in the face of illness and devastation. As Bingham continues to battle lymphoma and Sypin’s daughter fights leukemia, the two friends started the campaign as a way to help their own daughters cope with their individual encounters with cancer and hair loss. The group has requested that Mattel make a bald Barbie to help young girls affected by hair loss, either from losing their own hair during chemotherapy or by watching a female relative or friend fight cancer.
With almost 150,000 fans on Facebook and counting, the group has garnered mass public attention, making its way onto many popular talk shows, such as “The Doctors,” and in newspapers across the country.
Additionally, the group has become a safe haven for thousands of women and men to share their survival stories, post pictures, and provide comfort and advice, while also advocating for a great cause. Beautiful and Bald Barbie is fostering a community driven by hope and inspiration beyond the original mission to create a bald Barbie. When consumers are telling a company exactly what they want, wouldn’t it make sense to give _fans_ what they want?
Yet Mattel avoided addressing the group for some time and finally released a statement that left many fans of the Facebook group unsatisfied.
Mattel wrote: “We are honored that Jane Bingham and Beckie Sypin believe that Barbie could be the face of such an important cause. Mattel appreciates and respects the passion that has been built up for the request for a bald Barbie doll. We are constantly exploring new and different dolls to be added to our line; and as you might imagine, we receive hundreds of passionate requests for various dolls to be added to our collection. We are dedicated to supporting a variety of children’s organizations and needs throughout the year through a multitude of philanthropic activities.
In the past 10 years alone, Mattel and the Mattel Children’s Foundation have donated close to $30 million and more than half a million toys to children’s hospitals across the country. We support the Mattel Children’s Hospital UCLA and the National Association of Children’s Hospitals and Related Institutions, which encompasses approximately 220 hospitals.”
In the wake of their response, Mattel is facing deep criticism for not agreeing to make a bald Barbie from the start. As social media continues to become a more integral part of our society, companies face scrutiny on Facebook and Twitter. At what point does a company have a responsibility to make consumer requests a reality in order to prevent a public relations nightmare that they cannot control?
“Do I feel like Mattel has a responsibility to produce because we are asking—no,” said Bingham. “But I do believe that the Barbie brand has been under such criticism for their portrayal of perfect beauty that this would be an excellent PR move for them.”
Bingham continued, “We are not angry with Mattel but if they do not provide any answer, yes or no, people are going to become more disillusioned with Mattel and may not want to purchase products from them anymore. If they say no, it will look bad for them. We do not believe we can demand, only request.”
While Mattel debated on producing a bald Barbie, it did miss an ample opportunity to produce a product that many people are vying for. MGA entertainment, parent company to the popular Bratz and Moxie dolls, has agreed to make a line of bald dolls, donating a percentage of the proceeds to children’s cancer organizations that will be determined in the future.
Public relations professor at The University of Alabama Kristen Heflin weighed in on the situation.
“If Mattel ignored the group completely or was overtly rude to the group, then that would likely cause a PR problem. But, since Mattel acknowledged the group and indicated that they do support the overall cause of cancer research, then I think they effectively stopped the issue from spiraling out of control.”
Mattel did respond to the group and although its answer was not definite in rejecting or accepting the idea of creating a bald Barbie, its reply comes as a disheartening blow to the group’s main objective. Its response is causing a swell of negative commentary from dedicated Beautiful and Bald Barbie followers. The uproar after Mattel’s response appears to give companies no other option but to submit to the consumers’ wants, even if it is beyond their present corporate means.
To be fair, the group did ask for a response and Mattel complied. Although it is not the reply that Beautiful and Bald Barbie was hoping for, it does not discredit the fact that Mattel held up its end of the deal. After a surge of anti-Mattel posts, the company even invited Bingham and Sypin to its headquarters to discuss potential partnerships.
So what more can a company do? With Mattel’s recent drama on display, companies can take note that social media is a force to be reckoned with and needs to be approached in a manner that benefits both parties involved.
“I think companies should recognize that social media poses a great opportunity to listen to and communicate with your publics,” said Heflin. “However, just because social media enables two-way communication does not mean that the exchange will always be a positive one. Still, feedback (whether it’s negative or positive) can help an organization understand where it can improve and recognize publics that may have been previously overlooked.”
Mattel may have determined that the production of a bald Barbie would not be cost effective or possible for the company at the current time; however, it’s evident that it did miss a chance to take its customers’ opinions and implement them. As a result, an opportunity was missed and furthermore, angry posts about Mattel are floating around in social media with no way for the company to prevent others from believing them.
“Whether this doll ever comes to fruition, we have brought a community together and will continue with this page,” said Bingham. “People from all over the world have come together to share in the common bond of supporting women and children going through hair loss and that acceptance of beauty does not have to come from hair. You can be strong and beautiful with or without hair.”
As Bingham expressed, Beautiful and Bald Barbie has shown the power social media can have on a simple request. From having a few hundred members to becoming an internationally known place for advocates to support its cause, Beautiful and Bald Barbie has set the bar for future social media advocacy groups, and companies need to take note.