Margot Robbie on the ​Barbie ​red carpet in London
Margot Robbie on the Barbie red carpet in London. Photo: JUSTIN TALLIS / AFP

We Asked a Marketing Expert If ‘Barbie’ Is Just Branded Content

Pink girl summer is in full swing, but we have some questions, like: Is this just a Mattel cash grab? And should you care?

If you’ve been on the internet at all this year, you’ve probably come across promo for one of the most highly-anticipated theatre releases in post-pandemic times: Barbie, the movie. Set to hit theatres on the 21st of July, the first live-action adaptation starring the iconic Mattel doll has been years in the making.

The project was first announced in 2009 and has known many failed iterations, before finding its final form in a 2018 deal between the newly-formed Mattel Films and Warner Bros. The companies immediately brought on board Margot Robbie and director and script co-writer Greta Gerwig, known for introspective female-led features like Ladybird and Little Women. The rest – the Barbie feet challenge, the pink paint shortage, Ryan Gosling giving big Kenergy – is history.


Everybody seems genuinely excited to see this movie – kids and parents, fashionistas and their straight boyfriends, cynical feminists and campy gays. The movie is projected to make up to $155 million on opening weekend alone. In other words, everyone seems to be buying what Barbie is literally selling. During its much-touted marketing campaign, Mattel partnered with over 100 companies, hitting all kinds of demographics from gamers to glassware enthusiasts and oral hygiene freaks.

So are we all just being fooled? Are we going into movie theatres urging to heal our inner child, and leaving inexplicably wanting a pair of pink platform shoes? I called up Gary Pope, co-founder and CEO of the children’s entertainment creative agency Kids Industries, to ask if Barbie is just a thinly-veiled two-hour commercial for Mattel.

VICE: Hey Gary. So, are you excited to see Barbie in theatres?
Gary Pope: 
Like you wouldn't believe it. I've got a 19-year-old daughter who is the epitome of pink and we're gonna go together, I'm sure.


Pardon my language, but what makes this movie appealing to a grown man?
That really goes to the heart of the question, doesn’t it? Look, Barbie came around in 1959. Four generations of mother and child have been touched in some way by Barbie. This moment is 64 years in the making. The way they did their marketing with things like, “What kind of Ken are you?”, all of my office, all of my friends’ offices, we all felt like joining in to take the mickey out of each other. You could just be camp with it and enjoy it and be playful.

This movie is really a hero's journey from what I can deduce. To me, there's something of The Wizard of Oz about this. That movie is from 80 years ago, and yet it is kind of for everybody. I'll sit and watch it, my gay friend will sit and watch it, my daughter and mother will sit and watch it, because it’s joy and happiness and humour and fun. That's what we want.

Well, not everybody is excited. Some see the movie as a cash grab.
Of course it is. Of course it is about selling toys and products. Does that take anything away from a kid or an adult enjoying that film? No. Mission Impossible is branded content, Fast and Furious is branded content, you can buy the toys for that. It doesn't matter. It's entertainment.


So basically every movie is branded content nowadays?
Pretty much. In the kids world of entertainment, everybody's fighting for audience like everywhere else. And actually, what do people want? Children particularly want something they know. And Barbie is one of the best-known toys in the world.

Between 2001 and 2021, Mattel released over 40 computer-animated movies for kids featuring Barbie. If the goal was to simply sell more toys, why invest in such a high-level production?
It's not just about selling Barbies, it's much bigger than 12-inch plastic dolls. This is about a moment in time where you re-establish Barbie’s dominance in the cultural landscape of the world, and not only for this generation right now. My daughter, who is probably ten or 15 years from having children, she's going introduce the Barbie movie to her daughter. It’s a master stroke in brand equity.

So it’s about selling stuff to adults too?
No question. The reason we choose to have a little bit of entertainment in our life is because we want a slice of something untouchable. We see this wonderful world and we can have a little slice of that by owning a consumer product. Now, as soon as you've got that in your hand, you own it, you're connected to it, you've got a memory there because you've invested your money and your emotion in this thing.


I'll give you an example. That's Buck Rogers [holds up action figure on Zoom], he was a character in Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, a [sci-fi] show I watched when I was ten. I was in a comic store in Los Angeles and I saw this and I literally wet my pants. Now, a ten-year-old girl has an experience watching Barbie today. If in 15 years time she sees a piece of Barbie memorabilia she couldn't have afforded as a ten-year-old, she's gonna take that. That stays with her for the rest of her life. It's the power of owning something which you aspire to, or identify with.

In 1997, Mattel sued Aqua because they found the song “Barbie Girl” damaging to the brand. This movie seems to push the envelope quite a bit. What changed?
The way that culture has evolved over the last 20 years, nobody could have foreseen. You wouldn't find a company like Disney being quite this self-deprecating, quite this self-aware. They're breaking the fourth wall between consumers and corporation. Now, that's a dangerous place to play, isn't it?

At the end of the day, Mattel still creates goods from oil. By being this open, they are also opening themselves up to criticism. But it might be cleverer than that; they might be deflecting attention from certain topics. They're being quite clever, really.


Marketing people are loving Mattel’s campaign, particularly their many partnerships. Should we expect every upcoming movie release to go this hard from now on? 
Whoever said that this changing the way advertising is done is frankly talking out their arses. Nothing about this campaign is original, it was just brilliantly executed.

You've got a CEO at Mattel right now, Ynon Kreiz, who joined five years ago and has got his hands all over this. They have aligned all of their business units and gone to lots of other people that make stuff in categories where they don't. So you've got the movie as a tentpole and Mattel laser-focused on products they’ve grandly called “brand partnerships”, but that are mostly licensing deals. Mattel skims off 10, 15, 20 percent off the top of each deal for absolutely nothing.

Now, I think that we've only got so much energy to put into engaging with campaigns like this, haven't we? Forget the cultural imperative of the last 64 years of Barbie, if we had the same level of noise from another brand and the same expectation to engage, would we? No, we would get pretty tired of it. It's Barbie, it's a one-off, it's the summer. It will be a case study in universities, though, no question.

Finally, who will win the Barbie versus Oppenheimer showdown?
Barbie! Because we want to be happy, we don't want to put our head in our hands as we leave the cinema right now, do we?

Actually, I'm gonna see both and I'm excited to see both. Maybe I'll see both on the same day so I don't become either desperately sad or stupidly happy. Maybe that's the thing to do.