Ken Dumps Barbie, Leading Mattel To Rethink Its Rainforest Relationship

Greenpeace’s successful campaign to get the toy company to change its packaging has lessons for future plans to target large companies to improve their behavior: Amp up the humor and go viral.



Sometimes it takes humor to make a serious point. That seems to be the lesson from Greenpeace’s “Barbie, It’s Over” campaign–which recently resulted in Mattel overturning how it packages its products, including its famous Barbie and Ken dolls.

This summer, Greenpeace created a video showing Ken dumping Barbie (“I don’t date girls who are into deforestation”), a mock Twitter feud, photos of Barbie chainsawing logs, and a huge banner on the wall of Mattel’s L.A. headquarters. It was hoping to draw attention to the toy industry’s use of paper from the Indonesian rainforest in its packaging, and it succeeded. The video, photos, and tweets went viral, leading 500,000 people to send emails to Mattel in protest, and the media to report the story extensively. 

Those had a rapid and profound effect on the toy company. This month, Mattel announced a new policy, saying it planned to use more recycled content, avoid “controversial sources,” and increase use of fiber produced from companies certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. “Controversial sources” was widely seen as a reference to Asia Pulp & Paper, Indonesia’s largest paper company, and the butt of a longtime Greenpeace campaign. 

Now the campaign is being seen as a template for future environmental marketing, and the need to create content that makes people laugh as well as cry.  “We saw this campaign propel itself online and in the media in ways that we hadn’t seen with other recent campaigns that employed many of the same tricks, if you will,” says Rolf Skar, a campaigner at Greenpeace.

“I think it was the humor. People were much more likely to share this with their friends and family than some downer story about how the earth is falling apart.”


Skar says Greenpeace targeted Mattel not because it was necessarily the largest buyer of paper from rainforest sources, but because Mattel refused to respond to the group’s letters, and Ken and Barbie allowed it to “tell a story.”

“Yes, it’s about Mattel, but it’s also about Asia Pulp & Paper, and it’s about anyone else that is buying from them. We picked Mattel because we were surprised to see the toy sector showing up, and because they sell to kids, and this is about the next generation.”

Greenpeace now plans to target other companies doing business with Asia Pulp & Paper, and to step up its campaign against the company’s own-brand toilet paper line, known as Paseo

But what about Ken and Barbie? Can they get back together now? “Yes”, says Skar. “But there may be other hurdles.”

[Image: Flickr user Tracheotomy Bob]

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.