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Airbnb’s latest stunt is a sleepover in Barbie’s Malibu Dream House

And it’s not even the most elaborate marketing project the company has launched this year.

Are you a Barbie fan? Neither am I.

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Sales of the 60-year-old doll have been in decline over the last few years, partly because millennial parents have not been thrilled about buying their children unrealistically thin dolls that are scientifically proven to lower their self-esteem. Three years ago, Barbie’s parent company, Mattel, tried to reboot the brand by offering dolls with a wider range of skin tones and body shapes, and it has also sought to align the doll with progressive millennial-friendly values, such as supporting LGBT rights and open borders, through Instagram posts of Barbie wearing “Love Wins” and “People Are People” T-shirts. All of this has helped lift sales slightly, but it’s fair to say that Barbie no longer has the widespread appeal it once did.

[Photo: courtesy Mattel]

Despite all that, Airbnb’s latest stunt revolves around Barbie: Airbnb announced that starting today, Barbie is listing her Malibu Dreamhouse on the platform. It will be available for a single two-night stay for one guest and up to three friends, since the house sleeps four, with two bedrooms and two baths. (So if you’re pretending to be Barbie, you can bring Ken along, together with your respective best friends, Midge and Allan.) According to Airbnb, this “once in a lifetime opportunity” will only cost $60 a night, a nod to Barbie’s 60th anniversary this year. In other words, this is not a real listing: It’s a promotional stunt.

[Photo: courtesy Airbnb]

In pictures, the Dreamhouse looks very . . . pink. There’s an infinity pool in the backyard with pink and white beach balls, along with pink deck chairs, since there is nothing Barbie loves more than sunning herself in a bikini. One room is equipped with a walk-in closet full of well-known Barbie outfits, including a neon 1980s-style aerobics outfit, a firefighter uniform, and a spacesuit. (Presumably, whoever snags this two-night stay will be a woman and have the same proportions as the original Barbie doll. That would be unfortunate, because according to research from the University Central Hospital in Helsinki, Finland, a real live human with Barbie’s body would lack the 17-to-22% body fat necessary to menstruate.) And of course, since Barbie needs to stay in shape to maintain her unrealistic body, there is even a pink basketball court, along with a pink exercise ball and pink weights. The kitchen is fully stocked with food, along with cookware that is, of course, pink.

But that’s not all. The extravaganza comes with even more perks. You’ll get a meet-and-great with the celebrity hairstylist Jen Atkins, along with hair makeovers. You’ll get a cooking lesson with chef Gina Clarke-Helm, who owns a popular Malibu restaurant. And to highlight some of Barbie’s other interests, you’ll get a tour of the Columbia Memorial Space Center with pilot and aerospace engineer Jill Meyers, as well as a one-on-one fencing lesson with Ibtihaj Muhammad, who has her very own doll, one of the first to wear a hijab.

Ibtihaj Muhammad [Photo: courtesy Airbnb]

Decking out this Dreamhouse to make it look like Barbie’s Malibu property, as well as bringing on all of these experts and celebrities, is clearly an expensive endeavor for Airbnb. The company has invested heavily in marketing in recent years. According to new financial data obtained by the Information, the company’s operating losses in the first quarter of 2019 more than doubled over the year before, to $306 million, “a result in part of a sharply increased investment in marketing,” writes reporter Cory Weinberg. In the first three months of 2019, it invested $367 million in marketing, up 58% from last year. This was a bigger increase than in any other category, including product development and customer service, Weinberg explains.

(When I reached out to Airbnb about the company’s marketing budget, a spokesperson for the company said, “We can’t comment on the figures, but 2019 is a big investment year in support of our hosts and guests.”)

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It’s hard to know whether these stunts have a financial payoff for Airbnb. “While that spending could bring in a lot of new business, prospective investors could be unnerved if subsequent quarters show similar losses,” Weinberg adds. “That could pose an issue for Airbnb, which is preparing to go public sometime next year.”

But we do know that some of the company’s flashier promotions have provoked strong criticism. Simply put, some of Airbnb’s recent marketing stunts don’t seem to be sensitive to how culture is changing. For instance, the Barbie promotion harkens back to an era when parents were less concerned about buying their children a doll whose first career was being a model, and who was always focused on fashion and appearance. The Malibu Dreamhouse is about conspicuous wealth and privilege—a strange choice on the part of Airbnb, considering the growing wealth gap and rampant inequality.

[Photo: courtesy Airbnb]

Over the summer, the company announced that it would invite five “citizen scientists” to Antartica for 10 days to explore the icy landscape, bike around, and collect snow samples that would be studied by scientists for signs of microplastic. It seemed like an attempt by Airbnb to acknowledge the climate crisis, as demonstrated by movements like the global Climate Strike. But some critics found the promotion problematic. Shannon Palus, who investigated the promotion in great detail for Slate, pointed out that the trip was packaged as a way to support scientists and protect the oceans from plastic pollution. Yet travel—the basis of Airbnb’s business model—is a major source of carbon emissions, which accelerate climate change. Ultimately, Palus estimates the short trip would cost about $26,000 per person. In the end, she concludes, this is nothing but a “glitzy, greenwashing PR stunt.”

There are many ways that a company like Airbnb could appeal to consumers that don’t involve greenwashing or a plastic doll whose entire narrative was premised on superficial beauty and wealth. Perhaps it could invest some of its marketing dollars in helping travelers offset their carbon footprint or encouraging people to take vacations closer to home to cut down on their emissions.

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About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts

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