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A Virtual Popularity Contest

 

Annys Shin

Washington Post
February 19, 2008

 

Barbie's got problems. And the lead paint on her cat is the least of her worries.

Last year, Mattel's iconic doll -- and some of her pets -- were swept up in the company's recall of millions of Chinese-made toys. Hundreds of thousands of Barbie accessories were pulled from shelves for having lead paint or dangerous magnets.

Just recently, Mattel reported that U.S. sales of Barbie products dropped 15 percent in 2007 -- a blemish on an otherwise rosy year for the company, which posted a $600 million profit.

The recalls, it turns out, had little to do with Barbie's slide, toy industry analysts said.

What kept Barbie on the shelf was competition from the likes of a Hannah Montana doll and, more importantly, toys such as Webkinz that incorporate online games, social networking and other elements of virtual play.

"When you're spending a lot of time [on Webkinz], you're not spending four hours on Barbie dolls," said Gerrick Johnson, a toy industry analyst with BMO Capital Markets.

With girls trading in dollhouses for keyboards at ever-younger ages, Mattel and other major toy companies including Hasbro and MGA Entertainment, the maker of Bratz dolls, are responding by building their own virtual playgrounds.

Studies indicate that young girls spend an estimated seven hours a week playing on computers, twice as much as they spent four years ago. Children begin playing on the computer around age 5 1/2 -- the same time at which girls typically take up Barbie, according to a 2007 study by market research firm NPD Group.

While it's hard to imagine that the blonde bombshell who has outlasted the Cold War and eight-track tapes could have serious rivals, Barbie has been duking it out in toy aisles since the 2001 arrival of Bratz, the hip-hop-style dolls with big eyes and racy wardrobes that make many moms shudder. At times, the competition got ugly, with Mattel and MGA Entertainment trading lawsuits and accusing each other of stealing ideas. In 2006, Barbie looked as if she had survived the tussle, at least in terms of sales. Then a new onslaught of competitors arrived.

Hannah Montana, for one. Toys bearing the likeness of the Disney Channel character played by Miley Cyrus, daughter of country singer Billy Ray Cyrus, had some of the greatest growth last year, NPD Group reported.

However, the long-term threat to Barbie comes from the surging popularity of toys such as Webkinz.

Webkinz, introduced by Ganz in 2005, is a plush toy that comes with a code allowing children to go online and learn about their toy's virtual persona and visit with friends in virtual rooms they decorate.

"The fact is more and more children at a younger and younger age are on the computer and using the computer for its play value," said Isaac Larian, chief executive of MGA Entertainment.

The need to close the gap between the physical and online playroom has not been lost on Mattel executives, who have taken to referring to Barbie and her various accoutrements -- the car, the clothes and Ken -- as "the reality side of the Barbie business."

The giant toymaker has reached out to girls online with the free Web site BarbieGirls.com, which launched in April. Bratz followed in her high-heeled footsteps. In August, MGA came out with social networking site Be-Bratz.com. Not to be outdone by Webkinz either, MGA Entertainment also sells Rescue Pets, plush toys that come with access to an online world. Hasbro has Littlest Pet Shop VIPs, a virtual world it launched in October, to accompany -- what else? -- a line of stuffed animals.

And there's more to come, said NPD Group analyst Anita Frazier.

"I think we're going to see an explosion of toys that marry the physical with the digital when we go to Toy Fair," Frazier said, referring to the industry gathering that hit New York on Sunday.

Mattel executives are more pleased with the performance of BarbieGirls.com than analysts have been.

The site has more than 10 million registered users worldwide. To access more content, parents can plunk down $60 for a doll-shaped MP3 player. The player comes with a code that lets users go online to adopt a pet puppy, bunny or monkey, enter exclusive hangout spots, drop virtual "B bucks" on a tiara or cowboy hat, and decorate their rooms in the style of a tiki hut.

Despite being free, several analysts said the site hasn't generated Webkinz-grade frenzy. "BarbieGirls.com hasn't established itself," said independent toy analyst Chris Byrne.

Mattel chief executive Robert A. Eckert told analysts last month that the MP3 player may have been too pricey and that this year would see products that let girls get deeper into the virtual Barbie world while going softer on parents' wallets.

One example that has already hit store shelves and doesn't require a high-speed connection is Barbie iDesign Ultimate Stylist, a CD-ROM-based computer game that lets users play virtual fashion stylist. It comes with cards, similar to baseball trading cards, that allow girls to upload looks that can be displayed in their own virtual fashion show set to a soundtrack of their choice.

"We're taking the experience of the fashion doll and putting it into a game," said Mattel spokeswoman Sara Rosales, adding that sales of the game have been strong.

Positioning Barbie in the world of digital play carries potential pitfalls. Just as Barbie's unrealistic measurements have attracted criticism for being a bad influence on young girls, the proliferation of products emphasizing screen time has its detractors.

Sites such as BarbieGirls and Webkinz are what Susan Linn, director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, describes as part of "a commercial push to get very young children online . . . that takes kids away from hands-on creative play that is the foundation of critical thinking and creativity."

"It's about training children to shop online," said Linn, a child-development expert.

Rosales said nothing about BarbieGirls.com has to do with online shopping. "It's a massively multiplayer online game for girls," she said.

Industry watchers say virtual dolls aren't likely to replace toys you touch. NPD's Frazier notes that playing with toys still takes up the second-biggest chunk of time of any children's leisure activity, just behind that other kid pastime: watching television.


 

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