After decades of depicting artificially enhanced women in its annual swimsuit issues, Sports Illustrated has teamed up with a real doll to promote the 50th anniversary of the magazine feature.
The Barbie cover wrap appears on 1,000 copies of the magazine. Inside: a four-page Barbie ad spread. The issue hit newsstands on February 18.
Barbie herself turns 55 this year; her waist has gotten a little thicker, her feet a little flatter, and her thighs even more toothpick-like, but she’s still perky and game. In fact, the theme of the swimsuit-issue ad tie-in is #Unapologetic—yes, with a social-media-friendly hashtag. (New York Times ad critic Stuart Elliott noted that the singer Rihanna got there first with a November 2012 album called “Unapologetic”; Rihanna “often uses the hashtag #Unapologetic in social media,” Elliott wrote.)
The coordinated campaign has kicked up some controversy. But I remained neutral until yesterday, when a full-page ad, designed to look like an open letter, appeared in the main news section of the New York Times.
Now I wish Barbie would #ShutUp.
The headline is clever enough.
“Why posing for Sports Illustrated suits me.”
And the first sentence—“I am a doll”—seems to promise a playful, self-mocking first-person confessional. But the rest—all 500 words of it—is, I am sorry to say, as painful as a hike in five-inch stilettos: awkward, rambling, poorly punctuated, cliché-ridden. It’s like listening to one of those extemporaneous pageant-contestant speeches.
“Over time, I’ve become an icon,” Barbie humble-brags, “and as with all icons, I’ve been pulled into the cultural conversation”:
My bathing suit now hangs beside a Presidential power suit, Pastry Chef hat, and Astronaut gear in a wardrobe reflecting the more than 150 careers I’ve pursued to illustrate for girls that they can achieve anything for which they aim.
That’s a 40-word sentence. Did you make it through all the prepositional phrases? Note the Random Capital Letters and the tortured effort to avoid ending the sentence in a preposition. Barbie loves a zombie rule.
Barbie also loves “conversation”:
Every year, Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit [sic] drums up conversation and controversy.
Barbie is a little confused about what “word” means.
I, for one, am honored to join the legendary swimsuit models. The word “model,” like the word “Barbie®,” is often dismissed as a poseable plaything with nothing to say. And yet, those featured are women who have broken barriers, established empires, built brands, branched out into careers as varied as authors, entrepreneurs and philanthropists. They are all great examples of confident and competent women.
I had not realized that a word could be dismissed as a poseable [sic] plaything.
Naturally, there’s a rousing finale, more appropriate for a middle-school debate tournament than for the nation’s newspaper of record.
So the Swimsuit issue is out, and there’s bound to be a conversation or two about the women in it. Ask yourself, isn’t it time we teach girls to celebrate who they are? Isn’t there room for capable and captivating? It’s time to stop boxing in potential. Be free to launch a career in a swimsuit, lead a company while gorgeous, or wear pink to an interview at MIT. The reality of today is that girls can go anywhere and be anything. They should celebrate who they are and never have to apologize for it.
If you’re keeping score—and since we’re talking about Sports Illustrated, why not?—that’s three “conversation”s.
Forget the sociology and gender politics for a minute: It’s depressing to see such amateurish copywriting from a major American brand. (Barbie is owned by Mattel, whose 2013 revenue was more than $6 billion; sales of Barbie products account for almost half of the revenue.) A full-page ad in the Times costs between $60,000 and $100,000. For a tiny percentage of that sum, Mattel or its agency could have hired an experienced copywriter to create a witty ad that burnished Barbie’s reputation rather than providing critics with more ammunition.
Then again, the closest Barbie has ever gotten to an actual writing career is “News Anchor.”
“A flair for journalism—and power pink!”
You can read the full text of the Times ad here, and there’s a roundtable discussion of the campaign in a recent Times “Room for Debate.” If you’re #undeterred, you can buy a Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Barbie at Target for $19.99.