Mattel, an early pioneer of content integration, is now circumventing broadcast restrictions on children's fare with DVD and Web site-based branded entertainment.
Barbie's sales have been thinner than her waist lately, and Mattel's broader fashion-doll business is just as puny. But salvation may come in the form of what landed in my mailbox two weeks ago, addressed to my 8-year-old daughter, Leah.
A DVD mailing for My Scene "Masquerade Madness" features a 23-minute animated feature with a sophisticated and hiply drawn Barbie and friends. The DVD comes with a coupon for the new My Scene perfume and a mail-in offer for a free My Scene bag with doll purchase. Pre-show ads pitch a CD-ROM game and Myscene.com.
These junior soap-opera characters and the kiddie lifestyle brand they inhabit is Mattel's answer to MGA Entertainment's Bratz, the chunky upstarts who have been muscling Barbie off the playground.
Branded entertainment of the sort Mattel could only dream about in recent years-and was once master of-appears to be the solution.
In the 1980s, Mattel's workshops spawned He-Man and She-Ra, action figures that hit the market just ahead of the cartoons that made them famous. G.I. Joe got his own TV gig, too.
The result was outraged parents and the Children's Television Act of 1990, followed by more specific 1996 regulations by the Federal Communications Commission, which effectively put an end to such programs.
The My Scene DVD is an artfully executed dodge of those barriers.
"Leah," I said earnestly, "you should know what you're watching is really advertising. What did Daddy teach you about ads?"
"That they're all lies?" she asked. "Umm, I'm sure what I meant was that you should always evaluate them critically," I said, capturing the nuance. "This is content integration. No claims. No lies. Just ... oh well, just watch it."
And she did, enraptured. This is no ordinary cartoon. It's better than most she sees, particularly the drawing. It's not at all crassly commercial, except the characters are action figures and it was forged in the hellfire of consumer insight.
Leah would surely be text-messaging her friends about this by now, were she so equipped. As it is, a few days later, her best friend, who had been similarly targeted, spontaneously mentioned the My Scene DVD at school. Word of mouth so powerful cannot be contained.
Her innocence is fading fast. I have Mattel to thank.
For a more detailed account of Mattel's Barbie effort, please see adage.madisonandvine.com