Mattel buys cover of Sports Illustrated in campaign to congratulate itself for the image of women it sells

Sports Illustrated and Mattel have entered into a relationship based on the exchange of money and sex. For those who haven’t figured it out yet, the whore is Sports Illustrated.

The transaction is what in advertising is called a “pay-for-play.” Mattel has bought four pages of advertising in the annual Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition and Sports Illustrated has inserted Mattel into the editorial content by putting Mattel’s popular Barbie doll on the cover of the issue, dressed in an updated version of the original swimsuit Barbie wore when the doll first hit toy stores in 1959.

News reports call the relationship between Mattel and Sports Illustrated a partnership, but it’s a partnership only in the sense that every commercial transaction is a partnership between buyer and seller. The buyer in this case is Mattel. The seller is Sports Illustrated, which has sold not only its cover, but also its journalistic ethics—if I can apply such a term to a parade of partially naked young women—for the proverbial thirty pieces of silver.  It makes me want to investigate the backgrounds of the live swimsuit models to see if perhaps one has rich parents who gave her a graduation present by buying into the issue.

Feminists have long campaigned against both Barbie and the annual Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. The short form of the argument made by many feminists (and I include myself in this group) finds that both objectify women into nothing more than bodies for display while creating an image of feminine beauty difficult if not impossible to attain for most women.

In Sports Illustrated, the objectification is explicit: no matter how accomplished the models are, they are on the cover or in the issue for one reason only—because they conform to the editors’ image of beauty.

Barbie dolls do their damage in a much more subtle way by presenting a woman in many guises—girlfriend, beach beauty, princess, model and stewardess to be sure, but also businessperson, teacher and scientist—yet always in a physical form that is virtually impossible to attain. There is nothing inherently wrong with a girl (or boy) having a doll that it dresses and takes to imaginary beaches or tea parties. The various incarnations of Barbies may skew towards the sexist, but they include the possibility of non-sexist female roles. The problem is that the doll represents and is sold as an ideal female form that is in fact impossible to attain because of the unnatural proportions of Barbie’s dimensions.

The other concern parents should have with Barbie is that this little doll with the enormous bosom—like all branded series of toys—trains children to become mindless consumers: to go for brands and brand extensions; to collect variations of manufactured sameness; to consider objects in everyday life as manifestations of fashion; to discard last year’s fashions; to express relationships through buying and consuming things. Barbie is all about buying stuff. A girl may not be able to achieve Barbie’s top-heavy figure, but she can buy the clothes, jewelries and other artifacts of the glamorous Barbie lifestyle.

By buying the cover of Sports Illustrated, Mattel’s strategy is an old one that usually fails: conduct a PR campaign about an advertising campaign.  Mattel bought the ads and cover in Sports Illustrated solely to talk about it to the news media and public. Here’s why I know it: there is hardly any market among readers of Sports Illustrated for Barbie dolls. Men mostly read it, not children, and certainly not girls of the age of maximum Barbie interest. Moreover, for both men and women readers, they are reading the magazine in a “sports” mindset; they’re not thinking about what to get their children for their birthday as they might in a TV ad during a House rerun.  All toy companies including Mattel tend to place virtually all their ads in media children use. In a sense, Mattel created a special event that nobody attends but all the news media covers.

Through the years, I have heard several hare-brained ad guys tell me they think a new advertising or marketing campaign is newsworthy and that it will get a lot of coverage in the mass media.  They are almost always wrong, but in this case, Mattel figured right, because it shaped the ad campaign for the sole purpose of getting publicity. Barbie on the cover of Sports Illustrated is the kind of bizarre pop culture story that few in the mass media can resist.  Once the PR campaign is established, the subsequent ads—all in the right places—should prove to be more effective because people will be familiar with the news story.

Symbolically Barbie as the Sports Illustrated swimsuit model takes objectification of women to a new level.  It’s not a young woman corresponding to the current ideal of feminine form promulgated by the fashion industry on the cover. It’s a plastic doll version of a woman.

For women, the message is that you can never reach this ideal. Losing weight, changing your hair and cosmetics, getting a little plastic surgery and wearing the right clothes could get you close to a human swimsuit model, but no one can attain Barbie’s dimensions and still be able to stand without tipping over.

For men, however, the message is just as pernicious: The swimsuit model defines what men should be pursuing, not only in looks, but in dress, demeanor and aspirations. The subtle message with Barbie is that you can not only have what the mass media tells you is a beautiful woman, but you can control her, too, just like humans control Barbies during play. The swimsuit model is at least a human being. Barbie is around for play purposes only.


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