Barbie Millicent Roberts has fallen for Ken Carson. Again. The world's most famous plastic couple is scheduled to reunite on Valentine's Day. The comeback will be no small feat for Ken, who sank into obscurity after Barbie dumped him in 2004, ending a relationship that had endured 43 years. The split, described then in a Mattel (MAT) press release as the "breakup of the millennium," cast Ken further into Barbie's 11½-inch shadow.
The rejection came as no surprise to Ken fans. Over the decades they'd watched him become little more than an accessory, like one of Barbie's sparkly tiaras. Mattel even referred to him as "arm candy." Then in 2004, Ken disappeared altogether. "He's never been in the spotlight," says Jef Beck of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, founder of He's a Doll!—a Ken collectors club—and the author of the forthcoming I ♥ Ken: My Life as the Ultimate Boyfriend.
Much as Pulp Fiction did for John Travolta, Ken's scene-stealing part in Toy Story 3 restored him to his previous status of pop culture icon. The Walt Disney-Pixar (DIS) film was 2010's highest-grossing film worldwide, with $1.06 billion, and earned a Best Picture Oscar nomination. Mattel's publicity machine has been in overdrive ever since. Ken, who turns 50 on Mar. 13, now has his own Facebook page and Twitter feed (sample tweet: "Weekend Ken-fession: I may have knocked somebody over while walking and playing Madden on my iPhone this morning. My bad."). In January, Hulu.com began airing a Bachelor-style reality show called Genuine Ken: The Search for the Great American Boyfriend.
Beaming with confidence after his big-screen debut, Ken won his ex back with professions of love on big-city billboards and ads in Us Weekly. One message: "We may be plastic, but our love is real."
His handlers also revamped his image, giving Ken a Justin Bieberesque makeover complete with floppy locks, skinny jeans, and graphic T-shirt. "They softened his looks a little bit, but he's still as handsome as ever," says Sandi Holder, a Barbie expert from Union City, Calif., who once auctioned one of the dolls for a Guinness World Record of $27,000.
Ken's comeback has been years in the making and came after a shakeup at the world's largest toy brand—Barbie sells more than $1 billion a year—that began in 2008 when Richard Dickson took the reins of a business in decline. Amid competition from upstart brands such as MGA Entertainment's Bratz dolls, the Barbie division had lost about a quarter of its revenue since 2002. "Many people said, 'Are you sure you want to get into that mess?'" says Dickson, who had previously run Mattel's consumer products unit.
The new guardian of Toyland's First Couple was less protective of the brand's image than the previous regime. "We gave people permission to play with our brand, to have fun," in the hope that it would become culturally relevant again, says the 42-year-old Dickson, who left Mattel a year ago to become brand president at The Jones Group (JNY). Under his watch, Mattel greenlighted the couple's appearance in Toy Story 3. Mattel didn't have script approval and let the filmmakers cast Ken, voiced by Michael Keaton, as a vain, leopard-print-wearing metrosexual. In one scene, Ken cries: "I'm not a girl's toy." Says Dickson: "Poking at Ken's cultural noise is part of the fun. If you are talking about it...then we are doing our job."
The changes Dickson unleashed have boosted the brand's sales, which rose 6.8 percent to $1.25 billion in 2010 and may increase 4 percent this year, according to UBS Securities analyst Robert Carroll. "Barbie has gotten her groove back," he says. Sales of Ken dolls have rallied too, says Stephanie Cota, who succeeded Dickson as Barbie chief, though she won't give specific figures. Despite Ken's breakout movie role and his growing ranks of Twitter followers, his future depends, as always, on the woman he loves. Says Cota: He'll stay in the spotlight "unless he does something to really upset Barbie."
The bottom line: Mattel has brokered a reconciliation between Ken and Barbie as part of its brand-marketing strategy.