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Mattel made selling software for girls look easy when its "Barbie Fashion Designer" CD-ROM PC became an overnight hit last November, but the product's runaway success was no coincidence.

The toy marketer spent more than two years researching girls' play patterns before going where several software developers have failed: Trying to get girls as interested as boys in playing on the computer.

Since this research found that dressing up Barbie, perennially the world's best-selling toy, is the favorite play activity of girls, Mattel created a software program allowing girls to design-and print out-actual clothes on the PC for Barbie to wear.

The $39.99 product comes with paper "fabric" customizable to different fashions, complete with two-sided sticky paper for creating real seams.

"This was the first product to finally click with girls because we built on something girls already love to do, and we made it even more fun on the computer," says Pamela Kelly, 36, VP-worldwide marketing for Mattel's Barbie Media division.

Mattel also expanded the market for Barbie, whose core customer is 8 years old. Girls as old as 14 were clamoring for the product as soon as it hit retail shelves, Ms. Kelly says.

The product's simplicity was Mattel's theme in a year-long publicity effort resulting in dozens of print and TV news feature articles that appeared last fall, from Newsweek to Wired and on network TV entertainment programs.

A TV spot, created in-house, took the unprecedented kids' software marketing approach of targeting girls-not just parents-with the theme: "Computers are cool for girls."

Print ads, created by Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, Los Angeles, supported along with in-store and retailer-driven promotions.

By mid-November, "Barbie Fashion Designer" was the nation's No. 1 software product, and it sold out nationwide by mid-December.

"Now that the myth that you can't sell software to girls is gone, we're having

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