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The triumph of pink: How the premiere of ‘Barbie’ has become the cultural and commercial phenomenon of the year

Greta Gerwig’s film is a breath of fresh air for theaters. The premiere has put the doll, and her signature color, at the center of the conversation

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Ryan Gosling and Margot Robbie at the ‘Barbie’ premiere in London.Associated Press/LaPresse Vianney Le Caer (APN)

Hollywood is pink, though its current state of affairs are not rosy. The actors’ and scriptwriters’ strikes, no matter how fair they may be, have cast a shadow over the summer of premieres. The box office numbers from the latest installments of Indiana Jones and Mission Impossible have the industry trembling. But it doesn’t matter: Hollywood, all of Los Angeles, is pink. Bubblegum pink. Barbie pink. Bus stop benches have Barbie and Ken portrayed on them. Advertising for the Barbie movie is everywhere. On the Walk of Fame, three huge pink billboards overlap each other just in front of the Zara store on Hollywood Boulevard. Zara, the main brand of the Inditex group, has just launched a line inspired by Barbie and has even set two stores, in Paris and New York, in the world of the doll, a sample of the Barbie fever of recent weeks.

Summer is hers and no one else’s. Not Indy, nor Tom Cruise breaking bones, nor the shadow of Oppenheimer, which also opens on Thursday, cast any doubt on the fact that it is Barbie’s moment. And it doesn’t matter how much you love, hate or don’t care about the doll. Greta Gerwig’s film starring and produced by Margot Robbie has dominated the conversation, publicity and tickets. Cinemas have been selling seats for weeks, and the film is already sold out in many theaters. The expectations are immense and the result, above all, of a masterful exercise in marketing that has been seen on catwalks and stores, but above all in the streets, for more than a year. The Barbiecore trend culminates this week with the movie’s premiere. The strategy combines several key elements: a handful of actors known by different generations (from Helen Mirren as the narrator to Dua Lipa as Mermaid Barbie); a careful promotion strategy that has been extended for months drop by drop with hyper-analyzed trailers, posters, songs and events; a powerful and especially appetizing aesthetic after the gray times of the pandemic; and money, a lot of money, from a market willing to embrace the world of light and color that film offers, and from brands more than happy to take advantage of it. Even Google has jumped on the bandwagon: throughout the week, those who enter the names of Gerwig, Robbie, Ryan Gosling and Barbie herself into the megasearch engine will see pink sparks burst on their screen.

The film is based on Barbie, created in 1959 as the first adult doll (not a baby, but a real woman) that girls could play with. It is not about Barbie’s life, though, because Barbie hasn’t had a life. She has had professions, clothes, friends and Ken, but not a definition that would give her personality. Until now, when Warner, along with Mattel, has invented it. It is a risky move for a multinational listed on the Nasdaq (its stocks have gone up, by the way, in the last six months, especially the last one) and which has maintained a cordial relationship with the production company and the studios when making the film. Robbie has said that they visited its offices and factories. “They knew we were coming from a place of respecting the brand,” she assured The New York Times. Giving a narrative to a star who has remained silent for nearly 65 years is risky.

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A group of fans at the 'Barbie' premiere in Los Angeles, California on July 9, 2023.NINA PROMMER (EFE)

“Would Disney dare to release a movie like this about Mickey Mouse?” wonders Therese Wilbur, associate professor of Marketing at the University of Southern California (USC), in a telephone conversation. Wilbur knows what she’s talking about. From 1992 to 2005 she worked at Mattel, specifically in charge of Barbie, and for the last six years she was director of international marketing for the firm. She is responsible for half of the doll’s sales occurring in the international market. And she understands what is happening: “Barbie has become the head of pop culture.” Her presence everywhere, her multiculturalism — Wilbur compares it to Coca-Cola, so American, so universal —, the excitement at the film’s premieres, on the red carpets, by people of all ages, the management of its legacy after years branded as frivolous, all mark the evolution of the doll and the market. “The brand has known how to identify with women and girls from all over the world, to show that all women can be Barbie,” says the professor. “I noticed that the brand was not taking risks, but now they are. They are refreshing, reinforcing it, in a very accurate way”.

For Céline Ricaud, Mattel’s marketing manager in Spain and Portugal, the film and the media hurricane generated around it are “a clear example of its cultural relevance. Right now it is not just part of the conversation, it is leading it.” Ricaud belongs to the company today, and the red lines of the interview are clear: Mattel is not the film, and therefore, it can only be touched on tangentially, not be the center of the conversation. It is clear now, though, that it is impossible to separate Gerwig’s work from the 29 centimeters of plastic.

Ricaud recognizes that this relevance “is an achievement and a joy, and helps to continue with the objective of inspiring and reflecting diversity.” She also explains that all agreements with brands go through them, and there have been many and very diverse ones. But a pattern is repeated in almost all of them: pink, color, brightness, a feeling of happiness, of not feeling ashamed when leaving a spectrum of more classic colors. “I think we need these kinds of things that allow us to enjoy ourselves. This phenomenon is very visible, beyond Barbie,” affirms Ricaud.

‘Rosy years await us’

Brands have found a touchpoint in the doll, but also in the color. The exact one is Pantone 219-C, a powerful magenta with hints of yellow. The shade appears on Create toasters, Gap sweatshirts, Impala skates, Aldo sandals, Primark swimsuits, OPI nail polish, Kipling fanny packs, Superga sneakers, Fossil watches, Xbox game console, Crocs clogs, Nyx lipstick, Malibu Airbnb rental, Uno playing cards, and an endless stream of mugs, ice creams, hair dyes, T-shirts, milkshakes, floats, soft drinks and underwear. Carlota Pérez, founder and CEO of the Spanish firm You Are The Princess, has been thinking about launching a Barbie line for more than a year. She has now released more than 50 items for sale from what will be her first collection — they predict more — together with Barbie.

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Microsoft’s Xbox console in the form of a Barbie house can only be obtained through auctions and rewards programs.

“I don’t think that just anything with the Barbie label will sell,” says Pérez. “It is not as easy as putting a Barbie logo on something.” “To convince the public and stand out, you have to combine design and quality. And designing for Barbie has always been our dream,” she adds. “We proposed a project to Mattel, and from the first contact both parties were delighted, since our values and styles are very similar. We work directly with Mattel Spain every day, but it is a company that has a very broad structure worldwide, with arduous processes. They have to approve each design, all the text, review the quality controls of the products, the factories, in the U.S. But in our case it is something that we always do, and since the union of the two brands has fit together so well, we understand each other.” Pérez explains from her offices in Madrid that the partnership dates back to before the film, though, obviously, the premiere is helping the final push.

Isabelle Cheron, vice president of the Belgian travel bag firm Kipling, recognizes the same thing in a video call. They have launched only eight products (and a couple of add-ons) with prices between €40 and €140 ($45 and $156). But their way of working is similar: hand in hand with Mattel, which has to approve every decision. For Cheron, who has been with the firm for more than 15 years, the key to success — in the U.S., for example, they have sold out six of the eight online products in their first weekend — is that the collaboration “is authentic, has meaning, is done with respect,” but also that it meets desire of the public for “fresher” collections and objects. “Everyone wants pink. Maybe because of the pandemic, because it’s more cheerful,” reflects Cheron, who also began working on the proposal, not without some skepticism on the part of her team, before the film. Her intuition was good. As Carlota Pérez says, “Very rosy years await us.”

The sales success reinforces the reputation of the most famous and best-selling doll in the world, which was long criticized for being blonde and with perfect measurements. Today, it looks different: she has had more than 200 professions. She was president of the United States before any other woman. She was an astronaut before humans set foot on the moon. She has cars, houses and friends of all sexes, races, ages, and conditions. There are Black, fat and short Barbies and Barbies with Down syndrome, in wheelchairs, with vitiligo, judges and queens. “It is the most diverse line of dolls on the market,” Ricaud says. But is she a feminist? “I prefer to say that the purpose of Barbie has always been to inspire unlimited potential in girls, to inspire them to dream without limit,” Ricaud says. Mattel never calls its star a feminist, although her career and now the film prove otherwise. “Of course she’s a feminist!” laughs Professor Wilbur, who met Ruth Handler, the doll’s creator who died in 2002, in person, and assures that she wanted to make a feminist doll to raise feminist girls. “She created an adult who said, ‘Be who you want to be.’ She definitely decided she wanted to be a feminist.”

It remains to be seen what will happen at the box office. In the middle of last week, some data was released that predicted success: more than 20,000 people had bought tickets to see Barbie and Oppenheimer, by Christopher Nolan, the same day in AMC theaters. This past Monday, the figures had doubled. As a network executive told Variety: “This is only the beginning.” So begins the pink journey of a society willing to slide into Barbie’s house towards brighter times.

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