Barbie wants to help kids emerge from lockdown with social skills and empathy

After a blockbuster year, doll brand unveils its first work from BBH, linking doll play with emotional development

Published On
May 03, 2021

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After a year of lockdowns that saw many kids focused on screens, deprived of the social interactions of a school environment, parents are looking for ways to help their children develop empathy. Barbie is tapping into that need with a new campaign designed to illustrate the social benefits of doll play.

In the anthem video for “A Doll Can Help Change the World,” children are shown engaging in empathetic behavior, like reading to their dolls, kissing them goodnight and encouraging them to ask questions. It’s the first campaign for the Mattel-owned brand from BBH, which won the work following an RFP. Barbie had worked for years with BBDO, the agency that first developed the “You Can Be Anything” marketing platform that “A Doll Can Help Change the World” falls under.

“We found that when kids play with dolls, it unlocks social skills like empathy,” says Lisa McKnight, senior VP and global head of Barbie and dolls at Mattel, noting that Barbie commissioned a study with Cardiff University two years ago looking at the neurological benefits of dolls. “With everyone in lockdown over the last year and spending so much time at home, we’ve had a lot of time to connect with parents.” McKnight says that 91% of parents Mattel spoke to ranked empathy as a key social skill they’d like their children to develop. In addition, parents are looking for other play outlets for kids following months of excessive screen engagement for things like virtual school.

The new work comes on the heels of blockbuster sales gains for Barbie, as parents splurged on toys and other items for the home with money that might usually be used for things like travel. In the fourth quarter, worldwide gross billings for Barbie were up 19%. It was a good period for Mattel in general—the toymaker saw overall net sales increase 10% in the quarter to $1.6 billion. Barbie’s recent rise continues gains the brand made in the last few years as it focused on inclusivity and gender equality.

“Barbie has had a record-breaking year,” says Chris Byrne, a toy analyst. “There is an inherent sense in the culture that kids need this kind of play.”

The new campaign will run for a year. Spark Digitas performed media duties. In addition to the anthem spot and social media placements, Barbie will have a microsite with more information on empathy and will host activations for the campaign in the fall. BBH is currently working on another campaign due out later this year. McKnight says that the brand is spending double the amount on the new work that it spent on its last brand campaign in 2020.

Though focusing on the benefits of doll play is nothing new, it’s still relevant, Byrne says. “It’s old wine in a new bottle but it’s a really good vintage,” he says. “Social, emotional learning is a real hot-button issue right now,” he adds, noting that many teachers are concerned about the lack of socialization this year for elementary-aged children. “Doll play can help close that gap.”