BARBIE PROTESTERS AREN'T PLAYING AROUND10May97 By DENISE GELLENE
Barbie has more to worry about than what to wear on outings with Great Date Ken. Now there's the Pink Anger rebellion against Mattel Inc., led by Barbie's most adoring fans.
Mad about Barbies with bad haircuts and livid over Mattel's attempt to muzzle their favorite magazine, Barbie collectors are doing what Barbie would never do: fight. They are firing off angry letters to Mattel on pink stationery in what they call a Pink Tidal Wave. They are boycotting Barbie, refusing to buy the plastic princess for one solid month.
They are committing what had been unthinkable treason: stocking up on Barbie's rival-in-loveliness, Ashton-Drake's Jean.
Barbie hobbyist-turned-rebel Priscilla Wardlow has snapped up three Jean dolls since the boycott got underway May 1. Wardlow, so devoted to Barbie that Mattel used her in an infomercial, bought 40 to 50 Barbies last year. Now she is standing firm: "I won't be buying any until the issues are resolved."
The Pink Protest, triggered by scattered slip-ups in quality and concerns about censorship of a collector magazine, is unlikely to seriously dent sales of Barbie, among the world's best-selling toys. Together with her cars, clothes, pets and friends, Barbie raked in $1.7bn for Mattel in 1996.
But hard-core collectors, a band 250,000 strong, contribute to the mystique about Barbie that has elevated a 38-year-old child's plaything into a cultural icon. Their protest, spreading around the globe via the Internet, is drawing concern from El Segundo-based Mattel: Three vice presidents spent six hours last week with two leading collectors to begin hashing out differences.
The extraordinary summit ended (as most summits do) with key issues unresolved. Said Sandi Holder, a collector delegate at the meeting: "They want everyone to go away and be happy in Pink Land."
With the boycott into its 10th day, Pink Land is looking increasingly blue. Avid collectors, mustering their resolve, are staying out of tempting pink toy aisles packed with the latest dolls. Online Barbie bulletin boards function as digital support groups for hobbyists going cold turkey.
"Doing great on day 2," a collector named Carol posted several days ago. "Sat in the car at K mart so would not be tempted while hubby getting cat food."
Carol was stronger than a collector calling herself Mary from San Ramon. She broke down while window shopping in the pink aisle of a Toys 'R Us, buying two new Barbies. The slip cost her: While away from her home she missed delivery of four mail-order Barbies.
"I got my just desserts," she posted. "I will not go to TRU until June 1."
Pink Anger aside, collectors have an almost familial bond with Mattel. Since gearing up its collectors' doll lines eight years ago, Mattel has courted Barbie lovers. It sends representatives to Barbie conventions, supports Barbie clubs and provides Barbie fans with information. It is easy to see why: Die-hard hobbyists together buy at least 750,000 Barbies each year and another 28m adults, nostalgic about the doll they played with as kids, occasionally purchase one for themselves.
Pink Anger has its roots in a series of manufacturing goofs and marketing blunders that point to a need for tighter controls at Mattel. First came Poodle Parade Barbie, a replica of a 1965 doll exact in every detail save one: Poodle Parade's hair seemed to have been trimmed with a chain saw. Then came Barbie's friend Francie, a reissue of another vintage doll, whose undersized shoes split when placed on her dainty feet.
Beyond fashion sins, Mattel misjudged and overproduced some dolls, causing prices to fall. Collectors who bought early got stung. Star Trek Barbie, shipped late to stores because of production problems, pushed Pink Anger to new frontiers. Prices skidded to $29.99 from $79.99 when unsold stock lingered on shelves, according to some collectors.
The final blow came last month when Mattel filed a federal lawsuit in Los Angeles against the publisher of several collector-oriented periodicals that mix flattering photos of Barbie with barbed new product reviews and occasional satire. The suit accusing the Miller's publications-an assortment of newspapers, magazines and price guides-with copyright and trademark infringement aroused the Pink Power movement.
Online Barbie chat groups buzzed about 1st Amendment rights and what collectors viewed as Mattel's Big Brotherish behavior. The Iron Curtain may have fallen, but in America, they said, a toy company is stomping on the Bill of Rights. Could unofficial Barbie Web sites be next?
"Sounds like communism!" sniffed one posting.
"Take a stand girls!" said another.
In Chicago, Barbie collector Ian Henzel created the Pink Anger Web site to, as he put it, "focus the anger." Quickly translated into German and Japanese, the Pink Anger call to action was heard around the world. In a show of solidarity, rebels stopped using the B in *ar*ie in their Internet postings.
"It's just like the '60s!" enthused Norita Bergmann, 48, whose Great Lakes chapter of the Barbie Collectors Club had a run-in with Mattel over using Barbie in its name. After sending the club a "cease and desist" letter last fall, she said, Mattel agreed to let it use the Barbie name for one year. "I feel like I am back in college," she said. "It is us versus them." Forget that back then Barbie was an anti-feminist lightning rod.
In its recent meeting with two collectors, Mattel confessed marketing missteps and promised to make things right. The company said collectors disappointed with Poodle Parade Barbie's bad hair day will get new Barbie heads-absolutely free. Mattel vowed to do right by Francie collectors and issue them shoes that fit the doll.
Sensitive to complaints about flooding the market, the company pledged to reduce by 15% the models of collectible Barbies it will issue in 1997. And the company said it would work with the clubs so that they could license the Barbie name at no charge.
But Mattel refused to back down regarding the Miller's publications, maintaining that the toy company also has rights. Ann Parducci, one of the Mattel vice presidents at the meeting, said the publications unfairly profit from using Barbie's images without permission. She believes that the Pink Anger movement, while loud, is small.
Challenged this week by a collector at Mattel's annual meeting, an event punctuated by screenings of Barbie commercials, Chief Executive Jill E. Barad stood her ground. A photo spread in a recent issue of Miller's put Barbie in an unflattering light, she said.
"It showed Barbie with alcohol, Barbie with pills," Barad said. While professing that Mattel "loves the collectors," Barad was unambiguous about her priorities: "What I do in my job, first and foremost, is protect Barbie."
Mattel said it is negotiating with publishers Dan and Barbara Miller in the hope of reaching an amicable resolution. The company wants them to sign a licensing agreement that would allow it to review periodicals before they are published. (A rival magazine for Barbie collectors had entered such a licensing deal.)
Given Mattel's financial heft, legal experts expect that the Millers, who publish their periodicals from their Spokane, Wash., home, to eventually settle. But they said it is not clear Mattel would prevail should the matter go to trial.
Legal issues aside, "Mattel may end up shooting itself in the foot," said Eugene Volokh, who teaches copyright law at the UCLA School of Law. A forced licensing deal could reduce collector interest in a magazine that likely serves to build enthusiasm about Barbie.
"They could be alienating the customers who are most loyal," said Volokh, who hastened to add: "Of course, Mattel knows its business better than I do, so I'm hesitant to say they are screwing up."
Unhappy collectors lack such inhibitions. "Mattel has taken action after action that is hostile to our group," said Wardlow, who with Holder met with the Mattel vice presidents. "They are stealing our hobby. We want our hobby back."
(c) The Times Mirror Company 1997.
LOS ANGELES TIMES 10/5/97 P1