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The Barbie Movie – Great cinema or just another corporate press release?

Barbie Movie Concept
By Anthony Hughes
15 August 2023
Corporate Reputation

Unless you have been living under a rock, you cannot have escaped the release of the global sensation that is the Barbie movie. The film has just surpassed $1bn in box office sales providing a boost to the struggling cinema industry and Barbie parent company Mattel’s share price. For adult audiences it’s a joyous, candy pink romp down memory lane, with a solid story, fantastic performances from the cast, a dash of subversion and a relevant message. What it lacks in subtlety it makes up for in humour…but then Barbie was never that subtle to begin with. 

Given the cultural stakes, making a successful Barbie movie that appeals to a broad audience was always going to be a challenge, so I take my pink corporate comms cowboy hat off to the producers – mission accomplished. Leaving the cinema with my comms hat back on, the overriding sensation I was left with was that I had just witnessed the latest high budget, Mattel corporate repositioning exercise. This was Mattel’s sparkling (and very entertaining) press release about its new corporate values, where they wanted to take the brand next and confirmation of the success of its strategy to be ‘an IP owner and franchise manager’. 

Viewed in that context, it was perhaps not surprising that they tried to address some of the more controversial elements of Barbie history and reposition as a self-aware, socially in-touch and responsible brand for the Gen Z world. One of the criticisms often levelled at Barbie over the years is that she has typically been a ‘tardy follower’ of social politics rather than a ‘radical forerunner’* and changes to its models have been driven by the need to invigorate Mattel’s bottom line rather than a need to be socially progressive. 

This then is an attempt to break that cycle, with a hyper self-aware and self-referential plot that addresses issues around body image, sexism, the patriarchy, and the lack of gender diversity in the Mattel board room (and even Barbie creator Ruth Handler being charged with tax evasion) head-on. 

To give Barbie its due, it does it well, it could have so easily devolved into just another vanilla, algorithm driven, paint by numbers, yawn fest that a lot of movie franchises are today. But Barbie only gets away with it because of the great writing and fantastic performances and, I suspect, a heavy dose of nostalgic goodwill (but it veers dangerously close at times). There is a lot of very clunky product placement, so much so that in some moments you feel like you are watching an un-skippable advert. One of most gratuitous examples of this is an unnecessarily long, pseudo car chase scene that shows off the performance and features of various new models of Chevrolet SUVs and has no bearing on the plot at all. 

For all it’s an enjoyable film with a positive message, but on another level it’s Mattel turning to a tried and tested formula for companies with historic brand equity to reposition themselves or revive their IP and make it culturally relevant again through the medium of blockbuster movies. In a similar vein, this year we had ‘Air’ to give Nike Air Jordans a lift, Dungeons and Dragons the game… the film and further back, the Lego movie franchise to name a few. Whilst product placement in movies is certainly nothing new, this is something more. It is a growing trend of hybrid movies that are part corporate press release, part advertisement and part actual movie, ensuring that Barbies, Barbie merch and Barbie brand collabs are back on everyone’s Christmas list this year. 

It is unclear whether we have reached peak ‘corporate blockbuster’ - I suspect we are just getting going. Given the incredible financial success of Barbie and others we are likely to see this kind of brand-centric hybrid content that walks and talks like TV and film become ubiquitous. The question is, how long before the public start to reject this twist on one of their favourite cultural mediums in favour of a return to something purer. 

Whether its commerce imitating art or art imitating commerce…the line is going to become increasingly blurred, for the foreseeable future at least.  

*Why is Barbie so controversial? (