Mattel Finds a Better Boyfriend for Barbie

BarbieBy the time Barbara “Barbie” Millicent Roberts dumped her longtime boyfriend Ken Carson in 2004 (after 43 years!), he was pretty much a loser — to her, and to their company, Mattel. After the couple split, in fact, he practically disappeared. But following his unexpected star-turn in 2010’s Toy Story 3, the toymaker decided that Ken was ready for a comeback.

Mattel began planning a relaunch in time for Ken’s 50th anniversary in March 2011. It created a new model, Sweet Talkin’ Ken, while agency hl Group developed a digital and social campaign around a possible reunion of America’s plastic sweethearts. Ken was keen on the idea, but would Barbie take him back in time for Valentine’s Day?

Throughout the campaign, Ken would tweet about his attempts to woo Barbie (and about his favorite team, the Lakers), post photos on Facebook and romantic comments on Foursquare, and even put up a video on match.com looking for the perfect mate — Barbie, of course. (He’d go low-tech, too, plastered on billboards in New York and la, proclaiming: “Barbie, we may be plastic, but our love is real.”)
Ken had all the digital bases covered … except one.

Enter Hud:sun Media. After hearing about the digital campaign from mdc sister agency hl Group, the entertainment company came to Mattel with a radical idea. “They were looking for ways to infuse Ken into the popular culture, and we said, ‘What about doing an online reality show?’ ” says Hud:sun chief executive Michael Rourke.

Until then, online entertainment had been largely short-form because the conventional thinking was that online audiences wouldn’t watch anything longer. But Rourke was proposing a full-fledged 30-minute show. “Mattel got on board,” he says, “because they’re visionaries.”

As radical as the marketing concept was, the premise of the show, Genuine Ken: The Search for the Great American Boyfriend, was simple and totally familiar. Eight guys in their 20s would vie for the title by competing in different challenges — cooking, surfing, making the grand romantic gesture. At the end of each episode, one Ken wannabe would be voted out of the Dream House, so to speak. The plan was to premiere the show on Hulu in mid-January — at the same time Ken was making his digital bid for Barbie — and also distribute it through Barbie-brand social channels such as Facebook and YouTube.
Hud:sun created a microsite to search for potential “Ken-testants” across the country, and hired reality star and Barbie look-alike Whitney Port of MTV’s The Hills to be the host and one of the regular judges. (The other permanent judge was Barbie marketing director Lauren Bruksch.) Then, working closely with Mattel, the entertainment company created the perfect Barbie world for the show to exist in. The palette was pink, yellow and blue, and the fonts were straight from the Mattel style sheet.

“It was shot in a way that made it look like a dollhouse,” says Rourke. “Mattel is very good at knowing who they are.”

While the show was unmistakably Barbie — the weekly challenges came in the form of notes from the plastic fashion icon — the product barely made an appearance. “There was a little Barbie branding, but not a lot of talk about Barbie or Ken,” says Rourke. “It wasn’t about a doll. It was branded adjacent content. The mission was to reach the audience … and the audience cares about a really entertaining story.”

Genuine Ken was an immediate hit — and a huge attention grabber. After three episodes, it was the third most-watched reality show on Hulu, beating out network-produced series like The Biggest Loser, Project Runway and Kitchen Nightmares. It reached its target audience of young women where they live, or at least where they watch TV — online. And it achieved its primary objective of getting people talking about boyfriends and thinking about Ken.

“We wanted Ken to be part of the pop culture conversation, whether the product is for people who are five or 50,” says Rourke. “We saw it as our job to remind people how cool he is.

It apparently worked on Barbie because she said yes.

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