Some marketing failures are so bad they circle back upon themselves and become good. Not good enough to save the product, necessarily, but good enough to become a part of pop culture history.
Entered into evidence: Earring Magic Ken. (Sorry, I seem to have court cases on my mind tonight.)
As the second episode of the Netflix documentary series The Toys That Made Us illustrated to the world, Barbie is cutthroat. The people behind that product line at Mattel worked freakishly hard, year after year, to produce new Barbie material. Clothes, obviously, and the famed Dream House; but also pets, friends, sisters who conveniently disappear like the oldest Cunningham brother on Happy Days, vehicles, and of course her boyfriend, Ken.
In 1993, the Barbie line introduced six new “Earring Magic Barbie” dolls. They featured the traditional Barbie doll with three different hair colors, giant dangly spur-shaped earrings and a early-1990s nightclub dress, as well as a set of clip-on earrings for the young owner to wear. Or… three of them did. After all, the eerily similar Barbies needed someone to go to the club with. Those were the redheaded Midge, and an African-American Barbie. Oh, and a guy was needed too. That was, of course, Ken… and he’d need an earring of his own.
The Mattel marketing department looked around for images of what earring-wearing men wore at the time. That was, of course, a purple vest over a purple net-weave shirt, glo-waved hair and a necklace with a ring around it.
Yes, Mattel made Ken gay. Not just “maybe” gay, but they dressed the doll in the most stereotypical way possible for the early 1990s club scene. Boy George would look at this Ken doll and tell him to tone it down.
And because it was being driven by magazine images and marketing from very serious business-minded women who hadn’t been clubbing for decades, the people at Mattel had no idea what they’d done.
The result was a massive financial success. Far from being outraged, gay men bought the toy in droves, amused by its kitsch factor and by the fact that “cock ring Ken” (which is what the ring-necklace had seemingly been unintentionally patterned after) had somehow been able to sneak through marketing tests and out to store shelves.
Mattel pulled the line quickly, despite the sales, after media outlets started noticing Ken’s “new look” and explaining what it meant. The remaining dolls were pulled off the shelves. Thousands of the toys had already been sold, though; the genie was out of the bottle. They’re still available on secondary market sites like Ebay and Amazon 25 years later.
…Because he was the best-selling Ken doll of all time. Something for him to be, um, “Proud” about.
Question of the night: have you ever accidentally snatched success from the jaws of defeat?