Mattel’s Ken Wins Back Barbie With Bieber Hair, ‘Toy Story’ Role

A (Plastic) Love Story
In 1961 Ken Carson and Barbie Millicent Roberts fall for each other while filming a commercial. Photographer: Claire Benoist/Bloomberg Businessweek

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 endured 43 years. The split, described in a Mattel Inc. press release as the “breakup of the millennium,” cast Ken further into Barbie’s 11.5-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 an “underdog,” said Jef Beck of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, who started the He’s a Doll! club and wrote “I (Heart) Ken: My Life as the Ultimate Boyfriend,” which is due out next month.

Now, much as “Pulp Fiction” did for John Travolta, Ken’s performance in “Toy Story 3” has restored him as a pop culture icon, Bloomberg Businessweek reports in its Feb. 14 edition. The Walt Disney Co.-Pixar film, in which Ken plays himself, was 2010’s highest-grossing movie, pulling in $1.06 billion worldwide, and earned an Academy Awards Best Picture nomination.

Mattel’s publicity machine has been in overdrive ever since. Ken, who turns 50 on March 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, began airing a “Bachelor”-style reality show called “Genuine Ken: The Search for the Great American Boyfriend.”

‘Love is Real’

Beaming with confidence after his big-screen debut, Ken won his ex back with professions of love on billboards and ads in Us Weekly. One read: “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,” said Sandi Holder, a Barbie connoisseur from Union City, California, who once auctioned one of the dolls for a Guinness World Record of $27,000.

Ken’s comeback has been years in the making. A shakeup at the world’s largest toy brand -- Barbie sales top more than $1 billion a year -- began in 2008 when Richard Dickson took the reins of a business in decline. Amid competition from such upstarts as MGA Entertainment Inc.’s Bratz dolls, revenue at the Barbie division had fallen by about a quarter since 2002.

‘Bimbo Girl’

“Many people said, ‘Are you sure you want to get into that mess?’” said Dickson, who previously ran Mattel’s consumer products unit.

Before Dickson came along, Mattel watched over Barbie and Ken like an over-protective father, firing cease-and-desist orders at the slightest hint of image infringement. In 1997, the world’s largest toy-maker sued the pop group Aqua for its innuendo-laced song “Barbie Girl,” which featured such lyrics as “I’m a blonde bimbo girl in a fantasy world.” Before losing, Mattel appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

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, said Dickson, who left Mattel a year ago to become brand president at Jones Group Inc.

In 2009, Dickson reconciled with Aqua and released a music video that featured the couple gyrating to promote a new Barbie line called Fashionistas.

‘Huge Message’

“It sent a huge message to the company that just because history suggests we couldn’t do these things, that’s us breaking our own rules,” said Dickson, 42.

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.”

“Poking at Ken’s cultural noise is part of the fun. If you’re talking about it, we are doing our job,” Dickson said.

The changes Dickson unleashed have boosted sales, which rose 6.8 percent to $1.25 billion in 2010 and may increase 4 percent this year, according to New York-based UBS Securities analyst Robert Carroll: “Barbie has gotten her groove back.”

Sales of Ken dolls have rallied too, says Stephanie Cota, who succeeded Dickson as Barbie chief, though she won’t give specific figures.

While Ken now has a breakout movie role and growing ranks of Twitter followers, his future depends, as always, on the woman he loves.

He’ll stay in the spotlight “unless he does something to really upset Barbie,” Cota said.