Barbie’s Swimsuit-Issue Appearance Pays Off for Mattel

Barbie’s controversial appearance in this month’s Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue has turned into a commercial success for Mattel Inc.

A version of the doll featured in the magazine is a hot property at, the exclusive seller of the limited-edition item, Mattel said. More than half the inventory sold out in the first two days, the El Segundo, California-based toymaker said. Demand for the doll is now spilling over to EBay, where the item is reselling for $59.99 -- three times the product’s $19.99 retail price.

Mattel, the world’s largest toymaker, uses a publicity stunt every few years to boost Barbie’s pop-culture profile. The decision to put her in Sports Illustrated’s 50th swimsuit issue spurred debate in the press and social media over whether the move was good for the brand, while rekindling criticism that Barbie’s unrealistic looks send the wrong message to girls.

“When we were questioning ourselves as we were evaluating the opportunity, we asked: ‘What does success look like?’” Lisa McKnight, senior vice president of marketing for Mattel in North America, said in an interview. “It was to start a conversation.”

Mission accomplished.

After drawing criticism that a doll didn’t belong alongside real-life women in a swimsuit edition, Mattel published an op-ed this week in which Barbie said there was nothing wrong with being a model or wearing a bikini.

“Today, truly anything is possible for a girl,” Barbie said in the editorial. “Let us place no limitations on her dreams.”

Swimsuit History

Mattel started dreaming up the Sports Illustrated campaign eight months ago, with the goal of promoting Barbie as an icon, said Michelle Chidoni, a spokeswoman for the company. A handful of employees were looking for opportunities and came across Sports Illustrated’s plans to celebrate its 50th anniversary and feature legendary swimsuit models such as Kathy Ireland.

The idea clicked because the first Barbie wore a swimsuit back when the doll was introduced in 1959, Chidoni said. Mattel’s team then crafted the tone of the Sports Illustrated campaign as Barbie being unapologetic for who she is. The theme was a nod to the bold attitude of “Lean In,” the best-selling book by Facebook Inc. Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, Chidoni said.

The doll also is in need of a sales boost. While the brand is still the largest toy property in the world, Barbie has posted two straight annual declines in revenue, including a 13 percent drop in the fourth quarter.

Barbie Style

The limited-edition doll, adorned in a black-and-white striped one-piece bathing suit, went on sale on Feb. 11, the day the Sports Illustrated appearance was announced. The publicity campaign included a mock-up of Barbie on the cover of the Time Inc. magazine, though that version didn’t appear on newsstands.

Besides the buzz the appearance in Sports Illustrated generated, the swimsuit issue is read by 17 million women, who view it as more of a fashion issue, McKnight said. The campaign also coincides with the start of a big push in marketing to kids through television and online, she said.

“It is part of the overall strategy to talk to society and target girls and moms and have all of that firing power build to the end of the year,” McKnight said.

One of the challenges of a longstanding brand like Barbie is making it feel new and original, McKnight said. This year it’s trying to do that with a new line called Barbie Style that focuses on fashion and lets girls design their own dresses.

It’s another “opportunity to reignite the brand, to engage new girls and to change the perceptions of certain moms,” McKnight said. “And keep her a force in society.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.