Barbie crashes and burns in China

The Chinese launch of Barbie has crashed and burned, after the multi-million-dollar Barbie flagship store in Shanghai's most fashionable district had to close its doors for lack of business after just two years. Here's Ken Voigt from CNN with an expert's postmortem:

"Barbie spent a lot of money setting up a boutique in the most fashionable part of Shanghai, where you could go and have all of your Barbie needs met. You could have a fashion consultation, you could of course buy lots of Barbie dolls," said Karl Gerth, author of "As China Goes, So Goes the World: How Chinese Consumers Are Transforming Everything."

However, "they didn't think long and hard enough about whether Chinese girls wanted to look sexy or they wanted to look something closer to what you'd associate with Japan -- cute," Gerth added. "So Hello Kitty is doing well, but Barbie is an example of crash and burn."

What do Chinese consumers want? Not Barbie


  1. Well first of all, good.  And point B: Who the fuck thought Barbie dolls would go over in China?  Really??  How much do THESE marketing geniuses get paid I wonder.  FTW. 

    1. Believe it or not, there are still people who think that the quaintly costumed villagers of the rest of the planet are desperate to adopt US culture. You’d think that a visit to the local mall would disabuse them of the notion, but they probably think that Hello Kitty is just a division of Mattel. If they ever figured out that Kitty comes from the same place as those job-stealing little cars, they’d organize a toycott.

      1. So you think skin whitening is supposed to make you look more Caucasian? I don’t think that’s the case usually.

        1. I’m being a jerk. I originally said “white” and I edited it to say “Caucasian” just to mess with Sedan. Of course, I assume he was being gratuitously literal to mess with me.

          But yes, we know that Chinese and other Asians have a thing about pale skin, and it has nothing to do with looking Western. So there.

          1. Actually, it has a fair amount of looking “Western”.  Yes, pale skin = upper class (not suntanned from working in the fields), but there is also a huge market in cosmetics and plastic surgery for a “Western” look.

        1. It’s real life, and I’ve seen it, and I have relatives who’ve had eyes altered for the “double lid” look or whatever it is that chinese women wish they had from western faces.

  2. I’m sure the billboard with the 12′ tall close-up of Barbie’s head didn’t help. It makes the dead, frozen expression and unitooth extra creepy. “welcome… to… my… dreeeaaaam… house…”

  3. The problem isn’t that the Chinese don’t want Barbie.  The problem is that they were not MADE to want Barbie.  Somebody in marketing is fired.

  4. Funny, but this isn’t the first time a toy company attempted a toy launch of a major Western brand that fell flat for what now seem like very obvious reasons.

    In the late 1960s, Japanese toy maker Takara licensed the G.I. Joe figure to sell & market in Japan as “Combat Joe.” Can anyone think of why a U.S. military figure would fail in 1960s Japan?  It’s got nothing to do with a crazy war in Southeast Asia or the role U.S. soldiers played in post-World War II Japan would it?

    So what did Takara do? They made lemonade out of lemons and created the Henshin Cyborg line of action figures that were based on the G.I. Joe body-type, but were unique & cool: Transparent, cyborg-like & interchangeable. That line was very popular in Japan & led to the Microman line which then was imported to the U.S. as Micronauts.  History is here:

    But yeah, branding sometimes blinds people to obvious culture clashes in product lines overseas.

    1. What can I say, the Japanese make better toys. Might have something to do with a love of… well, not objects per se, but craftsmanship. Closest thing we have to that anymore is our love of money. You see where that gets you.

  5. Mattel needs to think outside the box here. Introduce a new line of Barbie “Friends and Companions”; ethnic stereotypes that can be sold back to their source cultures as well as sold in the USA. Back in the source culture, Barbie can be the obnoxious tourist friend who’s come to stay.

    So in this case we’d have Bi Bah and Sum Yung Guy, middle class, aspiring upper class Chinese immigrants, Sum Yung Guy used to work with Ken and Barbie at the startup in SOMA but has been laid off. While Bi Bah makes ends meet by working as a waitress in Chinatown. There’s loads of potential here for red and blue silk long dresses with the thigh length side slits.

    1. I was confused for a moment – i thought you’d just invented a machine for constructing boy bands.

      1. Bruce Sterling, Zeitgeist, 2000,

        The “G-7” girls, the cheapest, phoniest all-girl band. There’s The Japanese One, The French One, The American One, The …

        That stuff sticks in the mind and gets re-used.

  6. Actually, one key aspect of Mattel’s failure is that it rented six floors to sell dolls in a “fashionable part of Shanghai”. Shanghai is not as expensive as Hong Kong (where Burberry rents a 7,000 square foot shop for just under USD 1 million per month), but I’ll bet Mattel was paying at least half that for its six floors. For dolls… You can analyse it all you want, but the real reason for this fiasco is good old fashioned stupidity.

  7. china’s kurhn dolls have been successful and fall more into that “cute” aesthetic.  they’re sort of like the japanese licca-chan dolls (also more successful than barbie over there) in that they’re younger-looking and don’t generally look like a bunch of streetwalkers.  barbie originally didn’t do well in japan, either; she was made younger and more anime-looking over there until the 90s, i think.  pic of of the original bandai barbie and ken:

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