Thursday, February 10, 2011

Objectifying Men: Genuine Ken

So, for those of you who are going... what on Earth is this? Here is some backstory.  In 2004, Barbie and Ken broke up, she wanted to date a surfer, her career(s) had clearly outstripped his and she wanted to move on with her life, sew wild oats, etc... Regardless, she was IMMEDIATELY dating a blonde Australian surfer. Don't believe me? Here's an article for BusinessWeek that goes into the whole thing in more depth

So, years later, the Internet age has led to Barbie and Ken going... transmedia. Barbie Tweets, Ken Tweets, and now Ken has launched a nationwide multi platform marketing campaign to get her to take him back. Now, with Barbie flying to Mercedes Benz Fashion Week and Valentines Day Monday, we're all wondering... Will They Get Back Together????? 

At least some people are, people who post to Ken's facebook page and respond to his tweets and who are voting in the online polls and so on. His facebook page also aggregates all the content being created (suspiciously all licensees of Mattel's) to support the campaign to get her back. You can vote here at

 ... and this phenomenological display at Dylan's Candy Bar in Manhattan  

Anyway, you get the gist of all this. Something is going down at fashion week and 

Barbie and Ken are really familiar to people the world over, have been for decades.  With that and they've been parodied and played with endlessly by millions. Toy Story 3 did some great things with the pair. 

They're just now getting "voices" of their own online, though Barbie has been defining herself more clearly to her audience in narratives for years in films and television spots and games. This is a natural progression of marketing efforts and one I have talked about at some length given that this sort of thing is my job.

All of this is cute, and interesting to a wide fan base, most notably that of Adults rather than children. Kids overall don't need to be sold on Barbie, but if you want to expand Barbie's market demographics it's sensible to look towards those who once loved her rather than trying to sell boys on the pink plastic dream house. 

Ultimately, very few people need to learn that Barbie and Ken exist, the marketplace is saturated. But as icons, they have grown stale and people have forgotten why they exist and why they're popular. Why they played for hours with them as kids, and why their children probably would. This is not an intellectual process but an emotional one and while it is cheesy and direct that is exactly what Ken and Barbie are all about.

Ken has always been a secondary character in the Barbie Franchise, one who is the butt of so many "no genitals underwear painted on his pants" comments that it doesn't even need to be said anymore. He has always been Barbie's match and has always filled a role that men in the modern era find themselves in more often than it seems they once did, with wildly successful interesting girlfriends with a variety of interests, who often take the spotlight and who want a partner who isn't threatened by that. It is a piece of the zeitgeist that is not explored as thoroughly as it might in other narrative franchises, and that sets the stage for some big things from Barbie.

Ken's love of Barbie has lacked a clear voice for Barbie and it's a great argument to make for the Barbie brand to put Ken forward in this way because he can articulate all the reasons why a person would love Barbie, because he does. So, you have a solid campaign in the narrative universe, what other kinds of stories fit here? 

If you're anything like me, your gut reaction to this reality show is horror, mixed with fascination, mixed with a feeling of nausea and a bit of terrified awe. But that is my reaction to every reality show I've ever heard of so it's a dismissible reaction.

So. These guys are all competing for the title of "Great American Boyfriend" in the mold of Ken. Explicitly. It's clearly branded, immediately identifiable and yet, is really down to earth when it comes to the actual tasks presented. It's clearly not designed for the 5-9 set, though I don't think I'd be uncomfortable if someone that age saw it.

It has the feel of other 28 minute dating shows and is fairly wholesome. After getting over my initial terror of the whole thing (the things I do for you, blog) and actually watching it, I have to say, in the reality genre, it's solid. It's very well produced, very high quality for a web show, and they obviously were extremely considerate in the way the put it together. Admirable attention to detail.

There is a certain joy that comes from watching guys objectified in the same way women often are on reality shows, and there's nothing abnormal about any of the portrayals. There is less emphasis on sex because there's no one object of the contestants' affection to seduce directly. Instead, the focus seems to be on the guys various personalities and components of romance. That is actually somewhat refreshing in the genre and totally tone perfect for the Barbie and Ken romance. (insert joke about Ken's underwear here)

I found myself laughing out loud in the judging ceremony at the end of the show too, because in classic reality show fashion, they receive tokens that say they are moving forward. Those tokens:

Full Sized Ken Tags.

This whole campaign is extremely well done. It's really highlighting strong points in its brand, while not pushing against the grain and trying to take the brand into places that don't fit. It's playing to its strengths, but doing them carefully and considerately. I have never been the biggest fan of Barbies, as a kid I preferred dolls that were action figure sized because boys toys and girls toys were notoriously hard to play with together. Barbie was too tall for G.I. Joe, Batman was a little too short to play with She-Ra, and I liked the action figures a lot more than I cared about Ken.

As an adult though, I find myself intrigued by this whole campaign and feel a bit more inclined towards the content for my daughter as a result, it shows that there is thought going into the franchise and what the dolls mean. I am not running out to buy Barbie, but I probably wouldn't keep my daughter from getting one if she wanted one.

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