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Make Me Pretty Barbie!

A Brand Ethics Case Study

It’s all fun and games until it's not.

I’ve always had a pretty strong constitution when it came to self-esteem as a child, even during the tough years I battled childhood cancer. One of the highlights of my childhood was having an exclusive collection of Barbie dolls just for me. My sister would play with my dolls more than her skipper dolls, thinking it unfair. I recall my brother being exceptionally cruel biting off the feet and hands of my dolls sending me into fits whenever I’d open my doll box and find the heads missing.

These silly anecdotes give me comfort as an adult with a daughter of my own. As an African American woman, having dolls that looked like me as a child was scarce, but never seemed to bother me, as I never linked my identity to them, but rather the joy they created. I realize now that my experience is not typical, and therefore presents an ethical dilemma for the millions of other little girls whose stories reside in an alternate reality.

The Barbie We Know

The Barbie® brand was founded in 1959 by Ruth Handler and her husband Elliot, founders of Mattel (1945). Originally named, “Barbie Millicent Roberts”, Barbie® was inspired by Handler’s daughter, who for a time had played with make-believe paper dolls of adult women. Realizing this unique market niche, allowing young girls to imagine the future, Handler modeled her doll after Bild Lilli, inspired by a German comic strip character, buying the rights to the doll, and creating her own version. Mattel’s doll was different than any other doll on the market, as almost all of the dolls currently available were baby dolls.

At the pinnacle of the product development, Mattel learned that mothers were not buying the products because of the full figure and ideally oversexualized clothing of the dolls. Mattel soon realized the appeal of marketing to children and teenagers and used the boom of television to begin targeting their new customers (Wolf, 2000).

Barbie®, according to Handler, was always meant to reflect the times, with the first dolls mimicking 1950’s glamour icons such as Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor and taking on over 200 professional roles across her lifespan, including astronaut, doctor and paleontologist. A symbol of women’s empowerment, Barbie adapted its model to the change in times over the many decades of her existence. However, in an effort to combat criticisms that Barbie was solely a sex symbol, the franchise expanded its collection to include Ken, Barbie’s on-again, off-again boyfriend, best friend Midge, and little sister, Skipper. In support of equal rights, Mattel released the first African American doll named Christie in 1968, marketed as a friend of Barbie. Up until the 1980’s, diverse dolls were created, but always as a friend of Barbie. It wasn’t until 1980, twenty-one years after its inception, that Mattel released the first African American and Hispanic dolls named Barbie (Wolf, 2000).

It's easy to see how a myriad of ethical concerns present themselves given the fact that Barbie is marketed to children. First, Mattel must be sensitive to the social concerns regarding children’s rights as well as consumer privacy in the age of technology. The company has pledged to stand on social responsibility within and without the organization (Thorne et al, 2011).

Recent studies indicate that Barbie® has been connected with lower self-esteem and increased desires to look skinnier in children who play with the doll, creating negative influences on body image and lower body satisfaction levels among young girls, by giving children false pretenses and pressures about being skinny and perfect.

In an age where personal awareness and social consciousness are at an all-time high, the sustainability of the organization means the organization must be in tune to changing consumer behavior and appetites. Luckily, Barbie’s track record is on par. In 2016 Barbie released 33 new dolls with different skin tones, 22 eye colors, and 24 hair styles to be added to their Fashionista line. Even more exciting was the news that Barbie would now come in three body types: tall, curvy, and petite (Wolf, 2000).

The Brands We Choose

While the market for the Barbie has changed considerably in what would be considered acceptable in the modern age, Barbie has done well to keep in step with the changing climate, especially when women’s empowerment has accelerated in recent years. Barbie sets the precedent for innovative firms as they launch into product development.

Mattel has long had a commitment to human rights, and ethical standards in manufacturing and the workforce. It has also made a serious commitment to business ethics in its dealings with other industries. Mattel is also focusing on its partnerships to ensure that there is consistent maintenance of its strict, high standards for product safety and quality, making them a global leader in this arena. However, Mattel realized several issues recently in their overseas markets (a subcontractor failure resulting in 10 million doll recalls in 2007), and property rights battles (2004), the organization has successfully weathered many storms and remains steadfast in its efforts to restore its reputation (Thorne et al, 2011).

Identifying the ethical issues that impact an organization, its outputs, its employees, and consumers nationally and internationally helps firms to remain competitive across the industry, establish partnerships and collaborations that are in alignment with their own standards, and furthermore facilitate business behaviors that positively contribute to the sustainable development health and welfare of society. On it, a firm can hang the state of its reputation, goodwill, and faith in its brands. (Schilling, 2020)


Wolf, E. (2000). Barbie: The Early History. Retrieved on 01 August 2021 from

Thorne, D., et al (2011). Mattel Responds to Ethical Challenges. Daniels Fund Ethics Initiative, University of New Mexico. Retrieved on 02 August 2021 from .

Schilling, M. (2020). Strategic management of technological innovation (6th ed.). McGraw-Hill

Higher Education. Retrieved from

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