Ellen Lutwak: Barbie and Me

by The Bloom Report | 27 Jul 2023

Industry Commentary, Op-Ed

I've known our 11 1/2" fashion diva / movie star on a first-name basis since she first arrived on the scene; I won the blonde beauty at the 1959 birthday party of the red-headed nephew of Ruth and Elliot Handler. His cousins, of course, were Barbara and Kenneth. 


Thus was my introduction to the world of Barbie. The svelte plastic figure in the classic black-and-white striped swimsuit commanded a place of honor on my bed atop my pink-and-white striped bedspread, and dethroned my Betsy Wetsy. My fashion-plate mother –an aspiring model before she married my aerospace engineer dad – was intrigued. 


I later learned that my treasured prize was a pre-production version, based on the shape of her ultra-arched eyebrows. My collectible beauty is neatly tucked away in my original –now collectible – faux patent leather case; alas, her sassy ponytail is a total mess. I didn't keep the box; who knew that Never Removed from Box (NRFB) would add value on eBay. Way too late. 


But how ironic! Ultimately, I was hired as a copywriter for the Mattel Packaging Group in 1990 – with Barbie as my muse for many of those years.


Journalism Majors Can Do Anything


A journalism major and political science minor (California State University, Northridge) who interned at the American Civil Liberties Union – with stints as an aerospace technical editor, a film publicist, and even a catalog writer for Frederick's of Hollywood, I answered an ad listed in the Classified Section of the Los Angeles Times, and after rounds of in-person interviews, I joined the Mattel family. We girls can do anything.



Channeling the Evolving Voice of Barbie


I was one of the hundreds of writers - whether in-house or at an ad agency - who helped create the Barbie persona and channeled her voice – evolving from decade to decade. As a copywriter, I was one/third of the trifecta of packaging creatives, crafting product descriptions and coming up with product names for the products designed and dressed by the minions of Mattel creatives in other departments. (Even as a little one, I was immersed in product naming, demanding to know the name of the Revlon nail polish my mom applied weekly before grocery shopping, PTA meetings or her other suburban housewife errands.)


I collaborated with a structural engineer (the person who designed the intricacies of a package) and a graphic designer (whose art and type complemented the product and the copy.) After surviving layers of approvals by marketing, legal and safety departments, our enticing – hopefully – and engaging packages spoke to kids and parents from retail shelves around the world. In so many words – often in dozens of different languages, "Buy me."


Working Hard – Beyond 9 to 5


Like most of us in our department, I was a working parent, sometimes an exhausted mother. In many ways, Mattel was a parent-friendly pioneer: with a lactation station in 1992, and later, an on-site child-care center. I dropped off my toddler son – now a professional artist – early in the morning and picked him up usually past 5 P.M. Definitely beyond 9 to 5. My quality time with my kid was on the road from our Pasadena bungalow to the Mattel El Segundo World Headquarters.


My fashion copy was generously sprinkled with "cool" and "glam" – plus plenty of word play and occasional rhymes: "Little hug of a shrug", "Looking good binocular bag" and "Go-with-the-glow sequiny halter dress."  My middle school English teacher would be proud. I did, in fact, win poetry contests. 


Our Customized Barbie Dolls Really Lived in the Real World 


I was most proud of our short-run customized dolls and doll sets for selected companies and causes, often called Exclusives. Some collaborations in conjunction with Sales and Marketing departments were themed to impart knowledge and other partnerships, to promote worthy organizations. We were a part of the Barbie world, but these creations were not known by the mass market. The Barbie we worked with was kind, caring, adventurous, smart and inquisitive. And eventually diverse.



Some of my favorites:


Making Friends Barbie (1997): an Army and Air Force Exchange Service (AAFES) Special Edition: Wherever the kids in military families landed, they had Barbie in common – and that's why Making Friends was created. For our "real tips from real girls on making new friends" featured on the package, I interviewed girls from Mattel co-workers about how to make friends. Simple lessons conveyed to last a lifetime.


Boot Camp™ Barbie (1999): an Army and Air Force Exchange Service (AAFES) Exclusive I put on my journalist hat and interviewed an Army recruiter for authentic content, and he, in turn, encouraged me to enlist. (I passed.) With a background of pink-toned camouflage, "Barbie® doll is ready to serve her country." We encouraged kids to learn what it takes to succeed in basic training: first aid, physically fitness, pride in America, and much more. The package even had a built-in handle to take Barbie® wherever a kid moved.


Let's Camp™ Gift Set (2001) a Toys "R" Us Exclusive: Forget the Barbie Malibu Dreamhouse. For this set, Barbie along with Stacy and Kelly pitched their own tent. (We didn't know from homeless encampments back then.)  I never camped out as a kid, but later as a scout leader for my son, I learned my way around the trails and trees. I hoped we spread the word to families to get outside and play.


Barbie Sign Language (1999) a Toys "R" Us Exclusive: With her right hand molded in the ASL sign for "I love you," our doll "explained" American Sign Language in the real world for kids who are deaf or hard of hearing and their families and friends. Sign Language Barbie doll was developed in consultation with the National Center on Deafness at California State University, Northridge. 



Other of my favorites – now stored in plastic bins in my closet NRFB – are Barbie Love-to-Read Deluxe Gift Set supported the organization, Reading Is Fundamental; Space Camp Barbie, sold girls and boys to explore space on earth at the camp, and a talking Spanish Teacher / Maestra Bilingue Barbie, yes, speaking in English and Spanish.


Even before it was required, our packaging teams addressed the use and re-use of materials, transforming simple packages into classroom scenes or boutiques. With directions to carefully cut along the dotted lines, the back of a package became a picnic blanket or a bookmark.


Always a Package; Not a Box


"Get into the box and we’ll go back to Barbieland,” the laughable mock Mattel CEO in the movie exclaimed. Not in our department: the word "box" was verboten. Instead, it's a "package." We were the Packaging Design Group because the word “packaging” elevated the structure and design to a science backed by art. Imagine what it takes to ship a doll and keep her hairdo and all of the accessories in place in transit from a manufacturing plant in China to a shelf in Houston, Texas. I totally cringed and LOL – very loudly – at the movie scene with the real-life-sized twist-ties twisting around the doll's ankles.


I could not miss the chance to be a part of this Hollywood phenomenon – although I have not seen Oppenheimer yet (and my father was an engineer), so I snagged a single seat last Sunday for Barbie. Our local theaters were selling out! Who knew I would be a minor celebrity when I told the strangers next to me that I wrote the copy for the Barbie doll with Tanner, the pooping dog featured at the tail-end of the film. I still cringe at how I had to politely - with kids in mind - explain the toy's function. (Was it even safe with small parts?)



Pivoting from Packaging to Beyond Barbie and Back


After my Mattel tenure, I pivoted from packaging to many different paths: I trained as a nature docent for the local state park and leading kids K-12 on hikes plus teaching about the native people as well as flora and fauna. Let's Camp come to life! I earned a certification in nonprofit development, focusing on sustainability. I helped create and organize an outdoor "walking and writing” workshop for WriteGirls.org, encouraging young women to develop their writing and communication skills, attend college, and forge their own career path. I could say Barbie was an inspiration.


Even bigger dreams came true in the really, real world after Barbie: I landed a boots-on-the-ground position as the Los Angeles liaison for Jane Goodall's Roots & Shoots Global Youth Program, empowering kids to change their communities, their worlds. 


And then full-circle: I couldn't have been prouder when Mattel introduced the Barbie modeled after Dr. Jane Goodall, made from recycled materials. The new collectible flew off the shelf. 


This is the real world we love – and it is a Barbie World, my Barbie world. 


P.S. I am still available for packaging copy and product naming. The art image of yours truly was drawn by my friend Sal Velazquez, a colleague when we were both at Mattel.

barbie copywriter product naming package copy

Tait & Lily, Inventors of Betcha Can't!