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The Way Kids Are: It’s time that products for girls get with the times just like Barbie

Who are these kids of the '90s? How do they differ from children of other generations? 'The Way Kids Are' is a regular series of columns in which we invite readers to help us understand kids. Submissions can be made by...
August 1, 1997

Who are these kids of the ’90s? How do they differ from children of other generations? ‘The Way Kids Are’ is a regular series of columns in which we invite readers to help us understand kids. Submissions can be made by contacting editor Mark Smyka by phone: 416-408-2300, fax: 416-408-0870 or e-mail: smyka@brunico.com.

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Barbie and I were born on the same day, and somehow I’ve always found that intriguing. She has grown up and become a worldly woman and an executive of the ’90s, as have I. Our similarities end there, I’m afraid.

Despite the criticism that her body is too perfect, and that her proportions make girls feel self-conscious and even make putting on her clothes difficult, Barbie is still the best-selling fashion doll one that girls continue to play with and project their grown-up fantasies onto. Barbie is an amazing doll. She is gorgeous, active, athletic, rich (she has a Ferrari, Porsche and Corvette), lives in a fabulous dream house with a pool and a spa, and still has Ken and a variety of other fabulous doll friends. She’s certainly come a long way since her cardboard habitat.

But even though research shows that 90 percent of girls age three to 10 have a Barbie, there is a new generation of girls, and there needs to be a wider spectrum of products to meet their consumer demands. According to the a Simmons Market Research Bureau study, girls of the ’90s are not as stereotypical as most of us believe. In fact, the most popular toys with girls age six to 14 are crayons and stuffed animals, and their favorite leisure activities are sports. Also, many consumer traits are shared by kids of both genders. Just like Barbie, more girls are now active in all sorts of sports, including basketball (the WNBA just began this summer), baseball, soccer, mountain biking and rock climbing, and they are equally interested as boys in science, math and engineering fields that women of previous generations rarely entered.

In the early days of product advertising, when girls were shown as mini-mommies, mothers and daughters were often featured side by side doing their housework. Throughout the 1960s, playhouses and household products allowed girls to ‘play grown-up’ and take care of the children, clean and cook, just as their moms were doing. Suzy Homemaker became a household name. Even advertising for gender-neutral toys such as trains, bikes, games and building sets throughout the 1960s generally featured a single boy playing with a toy, and a girl observing the boy at play. In later years, companies such as LEGO created his and her versions of ads. But the more things change, the more they remain the same.

With licensed properties of the ’80s, including Rainbow Brite, Strawberry Shortcake and My Little Pony, marketers and producers began exploiting girls as a separate and distinct market. These products evoked great criticism because they were hardly feminist and barely palatable. Parents had to deal with a whole new set of categorized behavior and stereotyping targeted solely at girls, as these successful licenses became part of our consumer culture.

Just as Barbie has evolved and changed with the times, the products, programs and properties of our generation need to recognize this growth and change accordingly. Otherwise, they will be cast aside like an old Ken doll, and left in the dust as the girls marketplace continues to emerge.

Debbie Weber, who has her Masters degree from Harvard University, is the president of Multi-Media Promotions, which specializes in developing targeted marketing campaigns and creative programs that tap into entertainment licensing.

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