Feeling the festive spirit – could experiential and tech be the key to advent success?
Jay Short argues that innovation in festive campaigns comes in the form of experiential
Alaina Crystal shares her experiences of working on Barbie and how the messaging she worked on translated into the Barbie movie
“It was indescribable. I came home and just burst into tears. I couldn’t conceive of what it could feel like to know that in some small part, the work that I did with this incredible team of people is connected to this much larger platform and story.” Alaina Crystal (she/her), Gender Equity Consultant, Creative Strategist and Coach, is talking about a unique moment in her career that not many will get to experience.
In the winter of 2014, Crystal was working as a Planner at BBDO New York, when in came a ‘dream’ pitch just days before the Christmas holidays. That pitch was for Barbie and the work that Alaina and the BBDO team would go on to do would help set Mattel off on a journey that would later lead to a Barbie movie breaking box office records.
Back in 2014, Barbie’s popularity was at a low. Just one year prior, Frozen had hit the screens and Disney’s Elsa Princess became a symbol of sisterhood that millennial mums could buy into, minus the Barbie baggage. “She [Elsa] came with a backstory about family and self-discovery and sisterhood.” explains Crystal, “All of the good family values. With Barbie, it seemed like the feeling from millennial mums was ‘What am I supposed to do with this?’ ‘This doll is too plastic, too blonde, too fake looking. The focus was entirely on what Barbie looked like.”
2014 was a year when ‘Beyonce standing on stage with the word ‘feminist’ behind her and Hilary Clinton was starting to ramp up her second run for president’ explains Crystal. 2014 brand of feminism was one that Barbie had failed to keep up with. Instead, ‘Barbie’ had become a synonym for ‘bimbo’ and seemed to some Millennial mums symbolic of all that was wrong with the world.
“We needed to unpick all of that, unpick millennial mum's issues with Barbie and the societal issue with Barbie and ask why is it that this doll is seemingly such a lightning rod for conversation?” says Crystal. “So we did lots of work, late nights, pink presentations, LA visits, and what we came to realise were a couple of things. People were completely forgetting what it was like to play with Barbie.”
We did lots of work, late nights, pink presentations, LA visits, and what we came to realise was, people were completely forgetting what it was like to play with Barbie.Alaina Crystal (she/her), Gender Equity Consultant, Creative Strategist and Coach
While adults may view Barbie through a lens jaded by experience, children play with Barbie with innocent imagination. The team knew they had to highlight the possibilities and remind mums that Barbie needn't be a symbol of society's negative projection.
Beyond that, the team could also focus on the developmental benefits of the doll. Barbie is a doll that can be used for a type of play called ‘free play’. A freedom where a lack of rules or story allows children to use their imagination without boundaries. The type of play has an array of developmental benefits, from greater problem-solving to developing a sense of self. Where Elsa had an existing back story, with Barbie anything is possible.
‘My whole philosophy of Barbie was that through the doll, the little girl could be anything she wanted to be. Barbie always represented the fact that a woman has choices.’Ruth Handler
For Crystal and the team inspiration struck within this idea of possibility. “One night after doing lots of digging at my desk a quote appeared from Ruth Handler, Barbies creator, that said: ‘My whole philosophy of Barbie was that through the doll, the little girl could be anything she wanted to be. Barbie always represented the fact that a woman has choices.’”
Choices which could be seen in the way that the team working on the account played with their own Barbies as children. As Crystal explains: “One of my colleagues talked about how she loves travelling, she remembered being 4 years old and her Barbie travelled. Another talked about building negotiation skills at 5 years old because they were negotiating on the sale of the dream house.”
She continues: “Through all kinds of different ways of being, we realised we needed to come back to that core play experience and tell that story to millennial mums in a new and exciting way. That's how Imagine The Possibilities came to be.”
The ‘Imagine The Possibilities’ campaign went viral despite its relatively small media budget. Crystal shares that the ad had ‘nearly 100% positive sentiment’ and set the stage for the launch of the new, more inclusive Barbies in 2016. The campaign was a pivotal moment where Barbie was able to reclaim her own story, showcasing possibility and promoting the importance of choice through the dolls.
The campaign changed Barbie’s trajectory and set the scene for the Barbie movie. A movie which went on to become the highest-grossing film of 2023 worldwide, with the biggest opening weekend of the year and was the largest global opening for a female-directed movie.
“I was sitting in my seat, the movie opens and Helen Mirren’s voice-over says ‘If Barbie can be anything, then a woman can be anything.’ I genuinely got choked up, that was the sentiment of our original pitch deck.” says Crystal. “It [The Barbie Movie] met and surpassed every expectation I could have had for that story.”
“It was a beautiful continuation of the themes we had cooked up and taken to a place where Barbie, to me, was standing in her power,” says Crystal. “No longer was the brand worried about being a lightning rod thinking ‘Are we going to piss people off who want to hate on Barbie?’” she explains. “Instead it felt like the team was like ‘we’re going to do this movie, it's going to be nuts, zany, colourful and fun with a real message. To really teach people about things and do all of these things in less than 2 hours. It was so incredible to see that experience.”
The Barbie movie, directed by Greta Gerwig and produced by the movie’s star Margot Robbie, is unapologetically and explicitly feminist. The film has been equal parts heralded and slated for this focus on feminism. Yet, critics that suggest the film didn’t go far enough are inadvertently reinforcing the film's message; that unrealistic expectations of women mean they are set up to fail, they are either always ‘too’ something or not quite enough.
“The message of feminism that the movie brings is again that universal human truth around feminism that the world should be for everyone,” says Crystal. She continues: “When feminism gets misread or misinterpreted it gets taken as wanting one gender to triumph above others. That's not at the heart, it's about enabling equality.”
Stories that include humour and joy can actually be taken in a much more thorough way - like covering broccoli in a delicious sauce, you're still getting the nutrients but it’s going down in a much more powerful way.Alaina Crystal (she/her), Gender Equity Consultant, Creative Strategist and Coach
She continues: “What Barbie is doing so successfully is telling that story in a way that is fun. To have a movie that can cover toxic masculinity, internalised misogyny, the motherhood crisis and the decline of sense of self that women can often feel at that stage of their life. It can cover all of these aspects in such a broadchurch which to me is such a testament to the film.”
Through fun and engaging stories, people are able to digest difficult concepts and better remember a message. “Stories that include humour and joy can actually be taken in a much more thorough way - like covering broccoli in a delicious sauce, you're still getting the nutrients but it’s going down in a much more powerful way,” adds Crystal.
It’s also important to note, that much like Mirren’s voice-over jokes about in the film, Barbie is not going to solve the world issues and should not be the be-all-and-end-all voice on feminism. Where many brands simply avoid issues for fear of getting it wrong, Barbie has faced its critics head-on and sought the help of Gerwig and Robbie to tell a story authentic to their individual experiences as women.
Where the film only brushes the surface of feminism in a mass-market way, the experiences of many are left untouched and there remains room for education around intersectionality. “It’s a way to start to open up those conversations in a really mass way and if it leaves enough people thinking I think it’s worth highlighting that's possibly a place that the brand might want to play next,” says Crystal.
“How are you supporting communities on this journey of learning? If you’ve brought some of these issues to the fore it could be interesting to think about who you are partnering with in order to continue to deepen people's understanding of these larger social concepts and who are the voices you can amplify in doing that?” she continues. As she explains: “You could certainly be able to bring in many more diverse voices to be able to do that and you would be able to probably reach more people in a deeper way after they’ve seen the film.”
If you’ve brought some of these issues to the fore it could be interesting to think about who you are partnering with in order to continue to deepen people's understanding of these larger social concepts and who are the voices you can amplify in doing that?Alaina Crystal (she/her), Gender Equity Consultant, Creative Strategist and Coach
“As part of our Barbie pitch, we created a timeline of 1960-2015. When you track that progression, Barbie was either representative of, or surpassing what women were doing. Barbie went to the moon way before any man did. She was really an icon who has been with us across generations for decades.” says Crystal. “You could see that represented in who was there to see the film. There were folks my age in their mid-30s who probably played with Barbie growing up. Two people sitting next to me were mother and daughter.”
Barbie went to the moon way before any man did.Alaina Crystal (she/her), Gender Equity Consultant, Creative Strategist and Coach
Seeing women’s stories championed is not only important for society and for equality, but results in huge commercial success. With a Summer that saw Taylor Swift and Beyonce’s tours inject millions into the economy, a women’s World Cup that dominated screens and a Barbie movie that broke box-office records, it's impossible to ignore the cultural firepower of women.
“We are seeing not only how it pays back in terms of visibility to amplify the voices of women and girls but surprise, surprise when we are 50% of the economy it is kind of incredible what we are able to do when we are mobilised with stories that speak to us,” says Crystal. “I’ve seen Barbie three times, I will see Barbie three more times happily. Not just because of my connection to the brand but because it is the most feminist movie I've ever seen and I’m really happy to continue to give my money to that experience. It’s a demonstration of voting with your wallet.”
Beyond feminism the message at the core of the Barbie movie and the Imagine The Possibilities campaign is one of humanity.
“At the end of the film, Barbie chooses to be human and she doesn't make that choice lightly. She makes that with the full knowledge that being human isn't happy go lucky, it isn't Barbieland, she deliberately walks away.” says Alaina, “Barbie chooses to be in a place that has pain and joy and beauty and heartache and all of the things that make us human. When we forget that is when we cause the most harm to one another.”
At the heart of the film is that universal truth of what it means to be human, and Crystal urges us to think of this in our own lives and within the workplace. “When we think of that from a marketing perspective and from a leadership perspective, thinking about how you can embrace humanity in everything you do feels like it should be at the heart of your work. Whether it’s as marketers, activists, teachers, or whatever work we are doing, bringing that whole person in is to me the core message of the movie,” she explains.
“Yes consumers are consumers and yet they’re humans,” says Crystal. She continues: “Let’s try and embody what they are feeling and experiencing. That rush of emotion that Barbie gets at the end of the film, of all those incredible scenes of the humans living their human lives - those are the people we have to bring into our hearts when we do the work that we do and should be how we treat our employees and our staff.”
While the summer made it impossible to see pink and not think of Barbie, it could be that a hatred of pink stems from internalised misogyny. While it’s easy to be cynical about consumerism, Barbie has too long been a punching bag. While Barbie may not be able to single-handedly fix the world’s problems, she is a welcome reminder that everyone is human and that the possibilities are indeed endless.
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