What can advertisers learn from the "Ken-ergy" in the Barbie movie?

BBD Perfect Storm’s Daisy Proctor hopes that the Barbie movie will continue to cause conversation for men too

Daisy Proctor

Managing Director BBD Perfect Storm


Although I’m yet to see the film, it’s been impossible to not feel immersed in Barbie with its impressive global marketing. I’ve read and seen enough now to feel as if I’ve watched it already. So beware, some possible minor spoilers ahead as I ponder what it might teach us. Whilst the world turns pink, I’m most excited to see the “Ken-ergy” that the film explores and what we as marketers, brands and advertisers can take away. With its cultural significance and the attention it has already amassed, Barbie could be the perfect opportunity to spark long overdue conversations around representations of masculinity in the media, through the character of Ken. Whether the movie is truly progressive in its depictions of masculinity is something I’ll have to make my mind up about when I see it.

Men as an audience

‘Men’ is an audience often misunderstood by brands. Typically seen as one-dimensional to market to, there’s a large disparity between how men see themselves and how advertisers think men see themselves. That’s why we launched New Macho, a specialist division that helps brands and advertisers speak to men. In our new report ‘The Price of Success’ we found that two thirds of UK & US millennial men feel advertising and media negatively impacts how successful they feel. There’s a lot to be done to lift the often suffocating expectations of men that society and the media contribute to. We have to break-down these stereotypes and encourage brands and advertisers to embrace the multitude of masculine identities that exist. This is key to achieving true gender equality. But will Barbie help or hinder these conversations?

Whilst I’m not convinced that a movie based upon two archetypal figures can be truly disruptive, these are definitely themes that director Greta Gerwig was conscious of when writing Ken, which is a promising start. She told the LA times, “I think men have held themselves to just outrageous standards that no one can meet… Just as much as women have been lost in some morass of how to do everything, I equally see that as true for men.” I’m optimistic we will see these tensions played out through Ken’s experiences in Barbie Land and The Real World.

I think men have held themselves to just outrageous standards that no one can meet… Just as much as women have been lost in some morass of how to do everything, I equally see that as true for men.

Greta Gerwig

Second character energy

As I understand it, in Barbie Land Ken feels deep insecurity and lacks fulfilment in life. In this land, girls run the world and men are just the support act. Ken has a strong desire to be recognised as more than “just a Ken”, mirroring the feelings of men in our society and their desire to be seen for who they really are, not what the media wants them to be. However, Ken’s dreams clearly reflect the damaging ideals we are trying to break away from; he longs to become “a 10” and escape “blonde fragility”. Though he may not be disrupting them, Ken’s character does seem to highlight how these things can fester.

When Barbie and Ken enter “The Real World” Ken is met with the realisation that he can achieve his dreams of being more than Barbie’s sidekick - just by being a man in this society. But, much like advertising and the media, “The Real World” suggests that to be happy, men must base their self-worth on constructed pillars of success, including wealth, job status, assets and popularity. For men who don’t fit these ideals, their masculinity and self-worth is questioned. 

There is definitely a nod here to the detrimental measures of success and masculinity that the media contributes to. However, ironic or not, it seems that Ken finds fulfilment and joy through meeting these ideals, believing that these stereotypical measures of success are what make men happy.

Despite this, it does look like there is a more complex character arc highlighting the challenges of these ideals of masculinity. According to reviews, Ken ends up dissatisfied with who he is in both worlds, showing the unobtainable, toxic nature of these stereotypes. Barbie tells Ken, “maybe it’s time to discover who Ken is…Maybe it’s Barbie. And it’s Ken.” I like the idea of Ken’s identity being left open-ended, moving away from the restrictive narratives that the film has explored and Ken’s complicated relationship with his masculinity. It seems that Ken’s identity is left undefined and limitless, which is exactly how it should be for all men.

A gateway into the conversation

Whether it can offer any real resolutions to the problematic roles of gender we still face every day, I am doubtful, but I salute Barbie for bringing the conversation to a mass audience in a way that doesn’t feel confrontational and preachy. It appears to probe on the important issues around the damaging stereotypes of male success, and my hope for Ken is that audiences feel a depth of character come through and are taken on a journey to self discovery and freedom with him.

It’s not Barbie or Ken, it’s Barbie and Ken

Can Ken save men? Can Barbie empower women? Is this a movie about empowered women or about disempowered men? It’s less about either or, and more about ‘and’. Feminism has never been about women being superior, just like changing the male narrative has never been about giving men more advantage than they already have. It’s about the importance of both genders exploring their identities and potential, together.

Wouldn’t that be a wonderful thing…

Guest Author

Daisy Proctor

Managing Director BBD Perfect Storm


Daisy Proctor is Managing Director at BBD Perfect Storm

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