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Press Release - 19 December 2005

‘Babyish’ Barbie under attack from little girls, study shows

Barbie’s days on the Christmas wish-list could be numbered, according to a new study by the University of Bath which found that many 7-11 year old girls hate the doll so much that they physically attack it.

As part of a study into branding amongst junior school children, researchers have exposed a world in which seven to eleven year old girls subject their Barbie dolls to torture, maiming and decapitation as a way of expressing their changing feelings about the doll.

“When we asked the groups of junior school children about Barbie, the doll provoked rejection, hatred and violence,” said Dr Agnes Nairn from the University of Bath’s School of Management.

“The meaning of ‘Barbie’ went beyond an expressed antipathy; actual physical violence and torture towards the doll was repeatedly reported, quite gleefully, across age, school and gender.”

The researchers are working with more than 100 children to try and gain an in-depth understanding of the role of brands in the lives of 7-11 year olds, from the perspective of the children themselves.

British children now spend an estimated £3bn of their own pocket money each year, and have a ‘pester power’ influence worth over £30bn. Over the past several years there has been a dramatic increase in, and intensification of, exposure to commercially sponsored media

“Today’s junior school children seem to inhabit a seamlessly branded world where celebrities, toys, TV shows and electronics are almost indistinguishable from each other,” said Dr Nairn, who is working with Dr Christine Griffin from the University of Bath’s Department of Psychology and Patricia Gaya Wicks from its School of Management.

“Since birth these 7-11 year olds have inhabited a world where toys have their own TV programmes and internet sites, and TV characters can appear on products in shops and department stores.

“But we were surprised to find that the most resonant discussions amongst the children did not centre around toys and games, but on sports celebrities, pop stars and TV shows.

“Branding is clearly an engaging topic for children, but even by the age of 11 they do not share an adult’s understanding of brands, and their notion of branding may be far from that intended by marketers.”

The research

The children were split into two age groups (7-8 and 10-11) and put into groups, some of which were mixed boys and girls and others were single sex.

The researchers asked the groups to talk about the kinds of things they liked. From this list the researchers identified the 12 most talked about products, and asked the children to decide whether the product was ‘cool’ or ‘not cool’.

“As any adult who has ventured into this area will know, the notion of ‘cool’ is a complex and contradictory concept that doesn’t adhere to specific objects or people in any straightforward way,” said Dr Nairn.

“Throughout this project we have made a conscious effort to let the children tell us which brands and media influences were meaningful, rather than the other way round.”

What do 7-11 year olds talk about? 1. Busted 2. McFly 3. Britney Spears 4. David Beckham 5. The Simpsons 6. Barbie 7. Bratz 8. Action Man 9. Yu-Gi-Oh 10. Beyblades 11. Pokemon 12. Games consoles

“Interestingly, clothes and shoes were almost totally absent from the lists described by the children, despite the column inches devoted to parents’ concerns over marketing almost ubiquitous marketing of Nike and its rivals,” said Dr Nairn.

Barbie’s world of violence and torture

“Of all of the products we asked the children to describe as ‘cool’ or ‘not cool’, Barbie aroused the most complex and violent emotions,” said Dr Nairn.

“The girls we spoke to see Barbie torture as a legitimate play activity, and see the torture as a ‘cool’ activity in contrast to other forms of play with the doll.

“The types of mutilation are varied and creative, and range from removing the hair to decapitation, burning, breaking and even microwaving.”

Exploring the reasons behind the hatred and violence, the researchers teased out a variety of explanations rooted in the rich symbolism of Barbie. Analysis of the children’s comments indicate that Barbie is hated because she is ‘babyish’, ‘unfashionable’, ‘plastic’, has multiple selves and because she is a feminine icon.

“The most readily expressed reason for rejecting Barbie was that she was babyish, and girls saw her as representing their younger childhood out of which they felt they had now grown,” said Dr Nairn.

“It’s as though disavowing Barbie is a rite of passage and a rejection of their past.”

Similar attitudes were expressed to Action Man, but at the same time boys expressed feelings of affection and nostalgia to the toy which were totally absent from discussions of Barbie.

“One might expect a doll to fulfil the function of friend or playmate and for little girls to consider her as a person; a human to whom she might talk,” said Dr Nairn.

“You might even expect her to love her Barbie and expect an imaginary love in return. Instead, girls feel violence and hatred towards their Barbie.”

One interpretation of this finding may be that whilst Barbie masquerades as a person – she actually exists in multiple ‘selves’ with different dolls and guises.

“The children never talked of one single, special Barbie. She was always referred to in the plural,” said Dr Nairn.

“The girls almost always talked about having a box full of Barbies. So, to them, Barbie has come to symbolise excess. Barbies are not special, they are disposable, and are thrown away and rejected.

“On a deeper level, Barbie has become inanimate. She has lost any individual warmth that she might have possessed if she were perceived as a singular person, becoming an ‘it’ rather than a ‘she’.

“This may go someway towards explaining the violence and torture.

“Whilst for an adult the delight the child felt in breaking, mutilating and torturing their dolls is deeply disturbing, from the child’s point of view they were simply being imaginative in disposing of an excessive commodity in the same way as one might crush cans for recycling.”

Marketing and advertising

In-depth discussions with the groups revealed that children have an ambivalent relationship to marketing and advertising practices.

“The children were quite happy to admit that they routinely bought products simply because they were advertised on TV or marketed through their own TV show, but they also had a negative reaction to advertising and marketing targeted directly at them,” said Dr Nairn.

“Negativity expressed by the children about the Beyblades TV programme appeared to rub off on the perception of the toy. Similarly, the children felt that the way Action Man is advertised in action in tropical jungles was not an accurate portrayal of the reality of playing with the toy at home.”

Disillusionment with the product quality was often expressed in terms of value for money - children were angry about being ripped off.

“They understand that children’s products go in and out of fashion quickly and they think marketers exploit this by not only over-marketing but also by over-charging,” said Dr Nairn.

“Children reacted very negatively to companies which they felt ‘tried too hard’; to market a product to them. They felt marketing was a cover-up for a poor product.”

Next year the researchers will be extending their project to cover a larger geographical area, more socioeconomic groups and a greater ethnic diversity.

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