Barbie: the formative years
Nowadays, almost everything in the current market for childrenâ€™s toys seems to require batteries; if it hasnâ€™t got flashing lights, touch screens and loud electronic noises emanating from it, kids arenâ€™t interested. A far cry from my own childhood when Gymnast Barbie (complete with co-ordinated gym bag, sweat-bands and multi-coloured leotard) was enough to keep me entertained for hours!
Speaking of my old friend Barbie brings me on to a fascinating report that I discovered amongst our digitized collection of papers written by Ernest Dichter  and his Institute for Motivational Research . A perfect example of his â€śconsumer focus groupâ€ť, this report is an observation of a group of young girls (aged 8-12) and their mothers when given a selection of Barbie-prototypes to play with back in 1958.
The following tape-recorded comments came from four girls aged 11-12:These initial reactions are certainly endearing but the observations quickly turn to the dollâ€™s appearance and figure. Turning the doll over in their hands, the children comment â€śshe is really grown-upâ€ť (thatâ€™s one way of putting it!) whilst the mothers express concern at the â€śsexyâ€ť appearance of the doll: â€śthis is a daddy dollâ€ť one parent comments, â€śthey could be a cute decoration for a manâ€™s barâ€ť.
Despite these comments, the only thing that Mattel subsequently altered with regards to Barbieâ€™s appearance was her eyebrows and heavy eye make-up as the children thought she looked â€śhaughtyâ€ť and â€śsnobbishâ€ť. However, Barbieâ€™s â€śsexyâ€ť figure has become her trademark. To this day (at the age of 54) she boasts a teeny-weeny waist, impressive bust and legs up to her arm-pits. A recent study found that if you scaled up the Ken dollâ€™s proportions to human-size, you would find it in around 1 in 50 men. However, Barbieâ€™s proportions are to be found in only 1 in 100,000 women which lends weight (excuse the pun) to the argument that unnecessary pressure is put on young girls to be an unrealistic size.
Whether young girls are quite so easily influenced is debatable. The complete report and others on the consumer market from 1935-1965 will be published in a forthcoming 2014 project, details to be released soon.
 Ernest Dichter was an Austrian-American psychologist and marketing â€śguruâ€ť who came to be known as the â€śfather of motivational researchâ€ť. He used the psycho-analytics of his Freud-inspired education to study consumer behaviour and relay that information back to the advertisers to manipulate the market accordingly. According to a New York Times article in 1998, he "was the first to coin the term focus group and to stress the importance of image and persuasion in advertising".