Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

'Barbie' is pretty in pink — but will she also be profitable?

Margot Robbie poses on the pink carpet at a <em>Barbie</em> event in Seoul on July 2.
Jung Yeon-je
AFP via Getty Images
Margot Robbie poses on the pink carpet at a Barbie event in Seoul on July 2.

In the post-COVID economic doldrums, film studios have had a tough time trying to lure people back to movie theaters: Witness the summer box office struggles of the new Indiana Jones and Joy Ride movies. So Warner Bros. studios and Mattel have set out to create a hot pink movie marketing machine to build excitement for the new Barbie movie opening July 21.

"This is a test case in how to perfectly market a movie," says Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for Comscore, a company with expertise in box office numbers. But even before those numbers are in, he says the film has succeeded in dominating the cultural conversation with product tie-ins, viral social media buzz and meme-worthy experiences — cost-effective marketing that goes beyond the traditional movie promos.

In Malibu, Airbnb has listed "Barbie's Malibu Dream House," a real-life three-story mansion painted hot pink. There's a swimming pool with a tall curvy pink slide, a glittery outdoor dance floor, disco roller rink, and lots of closets.

Then there are the 100 or more brand collaborations: from Barbiecore fashions and frozen yogurt, to home insurance policies, to the Barbie Xbox.

Lead actor Margot Robbie has been crisscrossing the globe in classic Barbie garb for the film's promotional blitz. She and the film's director Greta Gerwig lead an online tour of the movie's set for Architectural Digest during which Robbie gushes, "Even though it's fake, it's beautiful, which is like everything in Barbieland."

Online, there's an AI-powered "Barbie selfie generator" to create viral memes. And at a real-life shopping mall in Santa Monica, fans have been experiencing the "World of Barbie," an Instagram-friendly pop up with a life-sized Barbie camper van, space station and music recording studio.

Like Disney's Star Wars and Hasbro's Transformers franchises, Mattel is poised to leverage its intellectual property into a cinematic universe. The company's CEO Ynon Kreiz told Time Magazine, "My thesis was that we needed to transition from being a toy-manufacturing company, making items, to an I.P. company, managing franchises."

NPR reached out to Warner Bros. and Mattel for comment about its Barbie marketing strategy, but didn't hear back.

The conventional wisdom is that if an escapist movie about the 64-year-old Barbie doll is a hit, Mattel's Hot Wheels, Rock'Em' Sock' Em Robots and Polly Pocket could be next.

With its trailers and soundtrack (with songs by Nicki Minaj, Dua Lipa, Billie Eilish and others), Barbie's marketing plan seems to be resonating with the culture.

"The zeitgeist is a post-COVID world that seems very scary, at war, dark. And Barbie is the opposite of that," says Kevin Sandler, an associate professor of film and media studies at Arizona State University. "Everywhere you look, you see this buy-in from Barbie, whether it's on social media or through all these brands. And it probably makes you really happy."

In fact, the Barbie boom seems to be benefiting another film premiering the same weekend; Oppenheimer, about the creation of the atomic bomb. Viral memes of the doubleheader feature a bright pink mushroom cloud.

"It's Mattel versus the Manhattan Project and BarbenHeimer; It's very fun," Dergarabedian says of the mashup. "That just means that this is going viral, and that's good news for both Barbie and Oppenheimer."

But some cynics complain the surplus pink Barbie marketing "tsunami" is suffocating. "Is anyone else feeling bullied into being excited about the Barbie movie?" tweeted Succession actor J. Smith-Cameron.

The film's slogan hints at the tightrope it's walking: "If you love Barbie, this movie is for you. If you hate Barbie, this movie is for you." It could be a nostalgic love letter or an ironic wink to those of us who grew up with nonconforming feminist moms who didn't appreciate blonde, blue-eyed Barbie's impossible figure. The feel-good trailers show a more inclusive Barbie world that doesn't take itself too seriously, with the fashionista literally stopping the dance floor by asking, "You guys ever think about dying?"

Barbie's reviews aren't out yet, but the movie is expected to be No. 1 at the box office next week. So we'll soon know if pink really is the color of money.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As an arts correspondent based at NPR West, Mandalit del Barco reports and produces stories about film, television, music, visual arts, dance and other topics. Over the years, she has also covered everything from street gangs to Hollywood, police and prisons, marijuana, immigration, race relations, natural disasters, Latino arts and urban street culture (including hip hop dance, music, and art). Every year, she covers the Oscars and the Grammy awards for NPR, as well as the Sundance Film Festival and other events. Her news reports, feature stories and photos, filed from Los Angeles and abroad, can be heard on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, Alt.latino, and npr.org.