Why Barbie’s New Campaign Talked To Dads During The NFL Playoffs

Head of Barbie brand Lisa McKnight on tapping the unique bond between fathers and daughters to illustrate the power of creative play.

Why Barbie’s New Campaign Talked To Dads During The NFL Playoffs

Hey you, 30- or -40-something dude. Remember when you used to play Barbies as a kid? Oh, the hours and hours of imagined IRL situations, conversations, and adventures. Special times. What’s that? You didn’t play with Barbie? So then why was there a Barbie ad right in the middle of the NFL playoffs over the weekend? That pitch is aimed straight at you, man.


Okay, even if you spent more time with Optimus Prime than, say, the Dream House, now that you have a daughter it’s time to man up and play Barbie. At least that’s the core message in the Mattel brand’s newest marketing campaign. Grounded in research by Linda Nielsen at Wake Forest University, the brand taps into the insight that daughters whose fathers have been actively engaged throughout childhood in promoting their academic or athletic achievements and encouraging their self-reliance and assertiveness are more likely to graduate from college, and get a higher paying job.

And yeah, the new ad did launch during the NFL playoffs–nestled among the beer and car ads–to celebrate dads who play Barbie (#dadswhoplaybarbie, natch) and continue the brand’s aim to bond with parents, and align the itself with inspiration over being just another pretty face. Since introducing the new strategy in 2015 with the award-winning “Imagine the Possibilities” ad, along with a more diverse lineup of cultures and body shapes, Barbie has seen sales rise consistently, helping parent Mattel’s stock price along the way.

Mattel’s general manager for Barbie Lisa McKnight says the new campaign continues its strategy of bonding with parents but reflects the evolving role dads have in their daughter’s life. Indeed, modern fatherhood includes playing with dolls.

“It’s about getting parents to buy in, rather than just buying,” says McKnight. “We’re certainly not ignoring moms, but dads bring a different perspective to playtime with their daughters, and are also just getting more and more involved, so we wanted to include them in our message.”

A launch during the NFL playoffs is also a key part of the strategy. Putting an unexpected message in an equally unexpected place. “We want to make sure we’re starting a cultural conversation, so being creative but also showcasing it in unexpected places is a great way to do that,” says McKnight.

BBDO San Francisco executive creative director Matt Miller says the biggest challenge was creating a spot that effectively illustrated to dads why Barbie matters to their daughters. “It’s a brand that very few dads have any past relationship with, yet we’re telling them to get down on the floor and play,” says Miller. “But once we saw the troves of research that showed the more involved a dad is in his daughter’s imaginative play, the more he contributes to her real-life development, our job became very easy. That’s something every dad wants for his daughter. This is why all the work ends with ‘Time spent in her imaginary world, is an investment in her real world.'”


The dads in the new commercial are real dads, not actors, because Miller didn’t want to fake the interaction between the dudes and their daughters.

“We wanted the world to see and feel the authentic impact of real dads immersing themselves in their own daughters imaginative world,” says Miller. “What you see in the film is real. What you feel is real. And I think because of that you’re more likely to believe that you too can have those amazing moments yourself. All you have to do is be willing to pick up a Barbie and play along.”

About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.