The fact is, it’ll be nearly impossible for Barbie to live up to its hype. Just as perfection only exists as an ideal never quite made flesh, Greta Gerwig’s desperately anticipated film based on the blonde plastic doll will necessarily disappoint some when the fantasy of its stunning promotion gives way to the reality of seeing the actual movie. That’s the double-edged sword of so much frenzied buzz.
A kind of mob hysteria has taken hold of us in the past few months: the people are demanding cinematic Barbie — the version artfully masterminded by an esteemed auteur director, starring two beautiful and seriously regarded actors. But of course, Barbie fever is in many ways manufactured mania, with the backing of a Hollywood blockbuster marketing budget. Barbie’s total marketing spend hasn’t been confirmed, but it’s not uncommon for big studios to fork over $100 million or more on major releases (according to Deadline, global marketing for The Little Mermaid cost around $140 million.) After a few extremely shaky years for moviegoing, studios are ramping up to blowout ad campaigns again.
The biggest stars of Barbie arguably aren’t Margot Robbie as Barbie and Ryan Gosling as Ken but the movie’s uncanny marketing team, which has worked overtime to ensure the doll, movie, and brand are inescapable this summer. They’ve acquired an almost mythic stature, spawning memes and parodies of their terrifying prowess. Never mind all the traditional advertising you might see on the street or on TV, as well as the magazine covers, talk show interviews, and Margot Robbie’s to-die-for red carpet outfits that come with a press tour (a tour, however, that has been interrupted by the WGA/SAG-AFTRA double strike). No, this Barbie is all about securing brand deals.
The amount of Barbie film branded merch is pretty mind-numbing. You could build an entire closet out of them: A collection with Gap, Barbie x Bloomingdales, hot pink roller suitcases with luxury luggage brand Beis, a capsule collection with sneaker brand Superga, more makeup and skin care sets than we’re willing to count, accessories with Fossil, even a full-on assortment of clothes and accessories at Hot Topic, which has in recent years become a bastion for feeding fandom obsession and millennial nostalgia. (Also important to note that Trisha Paytas did a haul vid of every Hot Topic x Barbie piece). Furniture brand Joybird has a slate of Barbie Dreamhouse-inspired seating to adorn your home. In Brazil, there’s even a limited-edition Barbie cheeseburger from Burger King that’s dressed with a disturbingly pink sauce.
There were some standout moments, like the blindingly neon Barbie rollerblades from Impala Skate, which went viral after the set photos leaked. An army of rollerbladers wearing those exact skates promoted the movie at New York City Pride this year. Or take the surprise reveal of a Barbie Dreamhouse in Malibu, bookable on Airbnb. There’s a Barbie Xbox that looks like a little dollhouse (though, personally, a Barbie-pink edition of the Nintendo Switch would have been way more enticing). If your brand exists in 2023, chances are you did some kind of Barbie collab: a Bumble event featuring online dating tips from Barbie and Ken; a Progressive Insurance commercial set in the Barbieverse; a redesigned Roku City featuring Barbie’s Dreamhouse and a movie theater marquee advertising the film. A Barbie selfie generator went somewhat viral a few months back. Google any keywords related to the film right now, and watch the search engine’s typically staid colors turn pink, with pink sparkles raining down the screen.
What stands out for brand strategist Moshe Isaacian is how much of the promo around the film has savvily drawn on “what makes Barbie and the movie iconic,” he tells Vox — such as the rollerblades. In a viral Twitter thread listing Barbie’s copious brand tie-ins, Isaacian noted, “The devil works hard, but @Barbie’s marketing team is INSANE.”
But all that hustle seems poised to pay off. National Research Group, which releases box office projections, is now expecting Barbie to make $110 million in its opening weekend. (Meanwhile, rival Oppenheimer’s projections are a more modest $49 million.) To compare that with other blockbuster openers, Top Gun: Maverick banked $124 million in its domestic opening weekend. Over $100 million in the first three days is pretty impressive for a film about a popular child’s toy that’s aimed at adults — though we do live in a world where the Super Mario Bros. movie destroyed box office records. Not unlike Barbie, Super Mario Bros. also snared a lot of brand deals in the lead-up to its release: a mushroom-heavy Shake Shack menu and a line of body care products with Lush Cosmetic, just to name two.
Isaacian says that such quirky, at times outlandish brand tie-ins are a callback to how big and bold movie marketing was in the ’90s — like the now-coveted McDonald’s Szechuan sauce, which was originally released to promote Disney’s Mulan. “What we’re seeing [that’s] different is that with Barbie, it’s not about getting all this movie marketing to sell Barbie toys,” says Isaacian. “It’s to bring what Barbie stands for to our real world.”
“It’s been appealing to the gamers, it’s been appealing for people who like collecting stuff for their home, people who love skating, and shoes,” he continued. That’s a large part of the appeal — the world of Barbie has always been hyper-surreal fantasy. A doll living in a perfect world, who jumps from career to career with no barriers in her way and a million friends by her side. A doll whose feet literally never quite touch the ground. With each new piece of Barbie promo, we’re asked to imagine, what if it were all real and possible? Wouldn’t la vie en rose be so delightful?
Gerwig’s Barbie, with its tongue-in-cheek tone and PG-13 rating, is not for young children. It’s camp that promises to hit hardest for adults of a certain generation — with a cast that includes Helen Mirren, Will Ferrell, Kate McKinnon, Issa Rae, Michael Cera, and Rhea Perlman.
Beyond the tangible Barbie logo stuff stans can buy, much of the promo has targeted a kind of digital culture cachet — catnip for adults who keep tabs on art, design, and whatever the latest vibe shift is. Of course there was an Architectural Digest tour of Barbie’s house. The alleged discovery of Margot Robbie’s secret Letterboxd list of films to watch for Barbie (with the likes of Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg appearing on it) set cinephiles trembling. Recently, Gerwig did an actual interview with Letterboxd of her “official Barbie watchlist” (it did in fact include Umbrellas). The very fact that it’s a project helmed by Gerwig — whose past work includes Little Women, Lady Bird, Frances Ha — with a screenplay co-written with Noah Baumbach, was an absurd enough premise to draw an audience in. With their names attached, there’s been a permeating sense that the film is bound to be subversive, boundary-breaking, a technicolor acid trip. Axios reports that almost half a million Barbie pieces have been published in 2023 — reports, essays, takes, odes to all that Barbie means in the culture — like this Artsy deep dive into the film’s “hyperfeminine” kitsch. Tumblr and Instagram accounts dedicated to aesthetic film stills will be eating good off Gerwig’s Barbie for decades.
It’s also coming at more or less the right time, in the post-bimbo wave of pop culture theory, which says that there’s actually no need to choose between hyperfemininity, in whatever forms we typically conceive of it (like, for example, wearing a lot of pink) and being taken seriously as a smart, competent person — that was always an illusory choice anyway. Meanwhile, the platonic ideal of a man is pretty much Ken, a himbo who displays an unpracticed wisdom, and impeccable taste, through his total awe and adoration of the Barbie in his life. You see, he’s the polar opposite of a dude who’ll smugly observe that you’re not like the other girls. A few years earlier, and Gerwig’s Barbie might not have seemed so cool; a few years later, it could have felt extremely stale.
And then there are the memes. Barbie fever isn’t just driven by nostalgia or Gerwig heads or the prospect of a big theater-worthy event to look forward to after the lean pandemic years. Hype itself is the energizing pleasure, a wink and nod that you’re in on the joke. The biggest catalyst, without a doubt, is the fortuitous fact that Christopher Nolan’s gritty biopic Oppenheimer, about the man who created the atomic bomb, is opening on the same day as Barbie. On social media, there’s been joke after joke about the movie’s made-up rivalry. People are arguing about the correct itinerary for what amounts to summiting Mount Everest in terms of moviegoing this summer: the Barbie-Oppenheimer Double Feature. We have to ask ourselves, would Barbie thirst as we know it today exist without Oppenheimer? If the Extremely Online writers and meme purveyors weren’t so tickled by the situational irony of it?
To be clear, the online memes have spilled over into the real world. Barbie’s virality has taken on a life of its own, growing into a self-sustaining creature that no marketing team on Earth could predict or wrangle. I actually don’t know many people are clamoring to buy Barbie merch — but, according to AMC, over 40,000 people have bought tickets to both Barbie and Oppenheimer this weekend (somewhere in the world, Nicole Kidman is beaming with pride). I went to a Barbie-themed birthday party last weekend, the first in my life, adult or child. A few weeks ago at the Soho REI store, among the Camelbaks and carabiners, employees were conducting a poll asking customers whether they were seeing Barbie or Oppenheimer first. (An REI spokesperson confirmed that the company wasn’t a part of either film’s marketing campaigns.)
We’ve talked each other’s ears off about the movie for free — a thing that no marketing strategy, no matter how savvy or well-funded, could buy. The real Barbie (2023) was all the friends we made along the way.