Genius marketing lands Barbie on Sports Illustrated cover under false motives

bohannonWant to know a fun fact? The controversy-riddled Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue is celebrating its 50th anniversary this week. Since 1964, the magazine, for better or for worse, has exposed the world to the bodies of models, movie stars and athletes.

For 50 years now, the magazine has served as both a holy grail for adolescent boys the world over and a springboard for complaints against the objectification of women. What better way is there for a publication that has made its name for itself from controversy to celebrate its half-century of existence than by stirring up even more controversy?

How, you ask? By sticking the iconic unhealthy body image of Mattel's Barbie on its cover. Barbie will grace a wrap-around cover on a limited run of 1,000 of this year’s swimsuit issues, sporting her original swimsuit dating back to 1959.



The campaign, summed up quite nicely by the "#unapologetic" slogan, is so tongue-in-cheek and so self-aware, that it is almost passable. It is the kind of self-aware marketing that has been so prevalent recently. Acknowledging one’s flaws and reveling in them is characteristically millennial.

Instead of using Kate Upton again, or any model, the folks over at SI chose to take a reflective step back. By teaming up with another brand historically mentioned in the conversation of body issues, SI and Mattel are being, as the kids would say, “meta.”

Although the campaign is undeniably genius marketing, it is still upsetting on a few levels. Remember, the job of marketing is to generate hype and to sell something. So far, this campaign has done both.

Now, ignoring the fact that Barbie’s physique is actually impossible to achieve, this campaign is wrong for many other reasons. First off, this was Mattel’s idea, and it paid for the partnership. Second, Barbie is a toy marketed to young girls, while the SI swimsuit issue is for all intents and purposes (depending on the number of body paint shots) an adult magazine.

Barbie has been suffering lately. Over the course of the past six quarters, Barbie’s sales have seen diminishing numbers, and despite an effort to rebrand the doll, Mattel’s poster child is fading away. In case it is not obvious to anyone, this is a business move. However, Mattel claims that the campaign is designed to celebrate "some of the world's most famous swimsuit legends — like Barbie — who have gone on to break boundaries, build empires and shape culture." It is disgusting that a mega brand like Mattel is using the veil of celebrating women to sell something, let alone a doll.

Barbie is a doll that has been, and will continue to be, a prominent part of many girls' childhoods. Imagine a little girl who sees her beloved Barbie on the cover of a magazine, crying and begging for her parents to buy her that magazine. The problem is evident in the mashup of Mattel and the SI swimsuit issue.

At the end of the day, this campaign goes much deeper than a clever hashtag, and an unapologetic teaming up of brands. This is a perfect example of marketing at its finest — some of the best minds are paid big bucks to come up with these kinds of ideas, but that doesn’t necessarily make it right.

Reach the columnist at or follow him on Twitter @JordanBohannon

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