Barbie’s conversational abilities.  Words you thought you’d never see in a sentence.

Years ago having at least one Barbie was commonplace for little girls, along with the outfits and accessories that went along with ‘her’. Barbie was created over 50 years ago, and while there had been changes in style to keep current over the years, Barbie remained white-skinned with unfathomable and distorted body measurements (equivalent to 39-19-29…really??).

screenshot_2016-03-27_130048

Black Barbie‘ was launched in 1980, followed by various collections and more diversity, though largely the body measurements had remained the same. Over the years, with more emphasis on gender-neutral toys (and less on stereotyping), and increased awareness of realistic body image for girls, and the lack of racial diversity among other things, sales of Barbie were not as robust as they once were.

black-barbie-reproduction-3

Mattel, makers of Barbie, decided to give Barbie a make-over in more ways than one last year, by launching the Fashionista line of Barbies that come in a variety of ethnicities and body shapes, and by unveiling “Hello Barbie”, an interactive Barbie that can have conversations with your child. Yes, conversations – and Barbie asks a lot of questions.

Hello Barbie must be synced with the app, designed by partner ToyTalk, to function: first parents must authorize the collection of data and recording of conversations after reading a consent form that outlines how the data will be used and the manner in which it will be collected. An email is sent to parents weekly with audio links of their child’s conversations with Barbie, and they can choose to delete conversations and also delete recording if they wish. For interactive features, the child has a necklace that carries a microphone and requires a WiFi connection – and to activate conversation, holds down Barbie’s belt buckle.

Conversations are recorded and uploaded to Toytalk cloud services, translated into text, and using an Artificial Intelligence system to extract key words, replies are selected from roughly 8,000 phrases. Scripts are updated to discuss latest movies and music, and Barbie’s favorite topic, fashion (deep, huh?). Apparently Barbie can also remember previous responses, so conversations are more ‘meaningful’.

Given that the target market is pre-teen girls, concerns have been expressed by parents and by child advocate groups over privacy, as well as uncertainty with the potential messages being delivered to the ears of the impressionable Barbie friends. As for Barbie’s questions, the answers given and subsequently uploaded could prove to be valuable information for marketers. There are also potential security issues with respect to data being stored. Advocacy group, Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, started a social media campaign, referred to as “Hell No Barbie”, to create awareness over privacy concerns and potential issues relating to a child’s interaction with the doll.

Regardless of the controversy, the overall changes in Mattel’s Barbie line seem to be paying off, with worldwide sales rising 8% reported for Q4. On the interactive technology front, Mattel has partnered with ToyTalk once again, launching “Thomas and Friends, Talk To You” app.

It’s hard to say if Hello Barbie will continue to have legs (ha) at this point or not – if it’s any indication, on Amazon Hello Barbie is currently on sale at a 45% discount. Queue the song!! Who can forget, “Barbie Girl” by Aqua – flashback to 1997!