The Big Picture
- Barbie’s unexpected success at the box office can be attributed to a perfect confluence of factors and shattered all expectations.
- The marketing campaign for Barbie was crucial in making the movie a pop culture sensation, with Warner Bros. making all the right calls from the start.
- Barbie’s marketing campaign embraced the distinctive personality of the character, providing a refreshing and confident approach that resonated with longtime fans and intrigued newcomers.
The staggering box office of Barbie has all of Hollywood wondering how everyone involved in Greta Gerwig‘s third directorial effort pulled it off. As of this writing, Barbie is poised to crack the $1 billion mark worldwide, making it only the sixth feature to crack that threshold since the COVID-19 pandemic began. How does a movie get to such unexpected success? Barbie has shattered all expectations, a phenomenon that can be chalked up to many factors. These range from the quality of the movie to just how many generations have been impacted by the original Barbie doll. Like with so many motion pictures that take the world by storm, a perfect confluence of factors collide to ensure a movie surpasses all expectations.
However, it also can’t be stressed enough how important the marketing campaign for Barbie was in getting this feature to be a pop culture sensation. Movie studios have struggled a bit in the years since the COVID-19 pandemic to figure out how to promote movies in the wake of a global health crisis and emerging new technologies like TikTok, but there was nary a trace of insecurity in the promotional blitzkrieg that Barbie received. This was a movie whose marketing made all the right calls right from the start, all while embracing the core traits that made Barbie so beloved for years.
‘Barbie’ Kicked Off Its Marketing Campaign with A Classic Warner Bros. Style Teaser
You only get one chance at a first impression. This is especially true of marketing campaigns for big blockbusters, as Warner Bros. knows all too well. The studio infamously bungled the kick-off to Green Lantern’s marketing campaign back at the end of 2010 with a teaser trailer dominated by shoddy visual effects work. The teaser went over so badly that the then-head of the studio’s marketing department openly declared the trailer a failure in March 2011. Similarly, a generic teaser trailer for Pan (released almost a year before the feature’s eventual October 2015 bow) ensured that the first impression audiences had for this costly reimagining of the fairy tale was “this is something you’ve seen before.” A bad teaser trailer can start a wretched domino effect for a blockbuster movie that’s impossible to escape.
When it came time for the Barbie teaser, the Warner Bros. marketing department managed to avoid these pitfalls by wisely taking a cue from the American Sniper teaser trailer. That Clint Eastwood film introduced itself to the general public with a mesmerizing teaser largely focused on just one scene of Bradley Cooper’s Chris Kyle deciding whether or not to shoot a child. In the second half of the trailer, brief bursts of footage from other scenes in the movie occur, but the focus is mostly on Kyle behind his rifle trying to make a fateful choice. It’s a bold move to base a teaser largely just around one scene from a movie, but it paid off big time for American Sniper. This teaser was immediately distinct from all other trailers in the marketplace (which had lots of quick cuts and tried to show as much of various movies as possible) and instilled an ominous tone audiences ate up.
Warner Bros. has mimicked the format of the American Sniper teaser before for teaser trailers for films like Black Mass and A Star is Born, and the studio opted to return that style of marketing for the very first Barbie trailer. This teaser, which ran in front of massive December 2022 blockbusters like Avatar: The Way of Water, largely played out the opening scene of Barbie that mimics a key scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey. A quick montage at the end offered teases of the movie’s various colorful Barbieland sets and dance sequences, but most of the focus was on this heightened depiction of the impact of Barbie’s introduction to the world of dolls.
Going this route with the general public’s first glimpse of a live-action Barbie movie was an inspired choice. Letting an extended scene play out without any interruptions allowed moviegoers to get an accurate taste of the distinctive comedic atmosphere of Barbie while teasing out how the feature was deeply rooted in the history of cinema. Plus, the vibes of the teaser were very different from all the other Summer 2023 blockbuster teaser trailers floating around in theaters at that time. Right from the start, the Barbie marketing campaign was off on the right foot and things only got better from there.
Anyone Can Be Barbie or Ken!
With the arrival of a deluge of Barbie character posters in the spring of 2023, a website was unveiled called Barbie Selfie Generator. Here, people could put their own selfies or any image into the format of the Barbie character poster, complete with text options that allowed people to say “This Barbie/Ken is…[insert distinct personality traits here.]” It was an ingenious way to get people involved in sharing Barbie-related materials and immediately created a way for people to develop a personal connection to the movie. Similarly, the presence of a big Barbie box at theaters showing Barbie offered a way for people to do photo-ops involving their own poses, friend groups, and other personal elements while promoting a big Warner Bros. blockbuster.
These elements of the Barbie marketing campaign were a tremendous way of mimicking the way children personally interact with Barbie dolls. Warner Bros. marketers gave people a box and a selfie generator and then just let folks go hog-wild with the tools at their disposal. It’s a method mirroring how Mattel offered dolls to youngsters who could then paint, bend, or do anything else with these toys that they chose. Plus, these selfies and box images allowed people to spread the distinctive visuals of Barbie on social media. Blue and pink were all over social media back in April 2023 while pink boxes have dominated the worldwide web since Barbie’s theatrical debut.
These aspects also spoke to another key part of the Barbie marketing campaign: it didn’t run away from elements people associate with Barbie. Many modern blockbusters and tentpoles try to make recognizable characters “gritter” or more “realistic,” like any of the many attempts at providing modern iterations of Robin Hood or King Arthur. In the process, studios end up with properties that never satisfy anyone. Longtime fans of this character don’t recognize the figures they love and newcomers don’t just want to watch another Batman Begins/Casino Royale knock-off. In draining the distinctive personalities out of pop culture icons to make them “more universal,” grounded and gritty projects often end up being for nobody.
By contrast, Barbie ran with the fact that pink is the Barbie color and ran with trailers and TV spots emphasizing glitter and light-hearted jokes. There was no attempt to make this title seem like anything it wasn’t, with the film’s second trailer even concluding with a tease of a new version Aqua’s “Barbie Girl” song. This was a Barbie movie with a capital B, an approach that gave the feature’s promotional campaign an air of confidence that was irresistible. Longtime Barbie fans were excited to see something that reminded them of the doll they loved so much while newcomers were intrigued by a motion picture that wasn’t like other blockbusters in the marketplace.
Women Go to The Movies??? What a Concept!
In May 2008, The New York Times ran a piece just 10 days before the premiere of the theatrical movie Sex and the City about how shocked Hollywood was by the strong advanced ticket sales for the feature. The film industry and even Warner Bros. executives (the studio in charge of Sex and the City: The Movie) were apparently astonished a feature that didn’t have men as its target demo could be such a highly anticipated project. One lady named Helen Malani, who was planning on seeing Sex and the City with six of her pals, noted to the publication that it “is so rare to be able to have water-cooler type conversations with girlfriends.” A week later, those “girlfriends”, who made up 85% of the feature’s opening day audience, propelled Sex and the City to a massive opening weekend that shocked Hollywood.
Cut to 2023 and once again we have another feature aimed at women that’s astonishing people with its box office prowess. Barbie had a marketing campaign that was unapologetically “girly” and offered audience members of all genders a chance to indulge in colors and aesthetics typically demonized as innately stupid or inferior. Not only that, but it gave people of marginalized genders a chance to dress up, go out in public with friends, and feel safe with one another. Theaters were full of people shouting affirmations of “hi, Barbie!” to one another, a way women could vocalize support for one another. Movies that inspire that kind of behavior don’t come along every day. The idiosyncratic qualities of the Barbie marketing campaign leaned into the rarity of such cinematic events.
In a summer of blockbuster movies headlined by performers accused of chokeholding a woman or dogged by allegations of verbally abusive behavior towards women, Barbie’s marketing campaign promised an oasis where women of all shapes, sizes, and body types were welcome. The only problem with the success of this kind of marketing is that it still leans on the unavoidable fact that Hollywood has failed to understand that marginalized populations go to the movies too. Every time a rare women-led feature takes off at the box office, it’s a “shock” to the film industry. This is, of course, even truer and more difficult for even more marginalized groups, like women of color. If Girls’ Trip had been headlined by four white women, we would’ve had knock-offs and sequels out the wazoo!
These darker elements are worth remembering as well as the fact that Barbie’s successful promotional campaign shouldn’t suddenly inspire every studio to drench every one of its billboards in pink. What made Barbie’s promotional campaign so incredible was the way it tapped into the way people play with Barbie dolls and how it contrasted with default summer 2023 blockbuster movie marketing stunts. The inspired Barbie trailers and promotional stunts should inspire more creativity, confidence in the unique elements of an individual film, and desires to create cinematic safe spaces for underserved communities.