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Target Marketing Begins At 40

Can it be that Barbie with her perfect figure, big smile and long list of careers is having a mid-life crisis?

The world's most famous blonde is turning 40 in March, and like many of her middle-aged peers, she's trying to reinvent herself.

Yes, Barbie in 1999 will have a tattoo and hang out with friends who have nose rings.

"Barbie just isn't as cool as she used to be," said Marianne Szymanski, editor of Toy Tips magazine in Milwaukee. "But she's working hard to get back in with the cool crowd."

Few thought that Barbie would ever reach 40. She's been ageless since she hit store shelves in 1959, always fit and trim with the ideal body, hair and of course, bust line.

In fact, Mattel Inc. isn't even calling this a birthday, but rather an anniversary of the world's best-known and best-selling doll. About $2 billion of Barbie dolls and accessories are sold each year.

But big sales in the past aren't guarantees for the future.

"Kids are changing their tastes. They just don't play with dolls as much anymore or they stop playing with dolls at a much earlier age," said Eric Johnson, a professor at Vanderbilt University's Owen Graduate School of Management in Nashville, Tenn. "Of course, this is making Barbie nervous."

But Barbie isn't retreating to her Dream House to soothe her woes. A veteran of more than 75 careers in the past 40 years, Barbie is once again recreating herself.

Just last year, a few dolls in the Barbie line were transformed with bodies that better resembled the average woman, with smaller breasts and a more realistic shape.

Now, as Barbie turns 40, her look turns decidedly younger. Among the dolls Mattel is showcasing at next week's American International Toy Fair is a line of hip Generation Girls, which includes a doll with a nose ring, and Butterfly Art Barbie, with a butterfly tattoo on her stomach.

She's also plunging even deeper into the high-tech world. There won't be a pink Barbie computer on the market anytime soon, but Barbie is expanding her interactive offerings with seven new titles this year.

For the first time, Barbie dolls will be paired with CD-ROMs. New for 1999 is Working Woman Barbie, who comes with a play laptop and cell phone, as well as a real CD-ROM that allows a child to create her own business cards and stationary.

Some facts about the world's best-selling doll:

  • Birth: Barbie was first introduced in 1959, created by Mattel Inc. co-founder Ruth Handler, who named the doll after her daughter, Barbara. In its first year, 351,000 dolls sold.
  • Official name and home: Barbie Millicent Roberts from Willows, Wis.
  • Family: Barbie's boyfriend is Ken, who made his debut in 1959. Her three sisters include Skipper (1964), Stacie (1992), and Kelly (1995).
  • Fashion: Almost a billion fashions have been produced for Barbie and her friends sinc1959.
  • Favorite color: Pink.
  • Careers: Barbie has had more than 75 careers in her lifetime, including astronaut (1965), surgeon (1973), rock star (1986), UNICEF ambassador (1989), baseball player (1993), and paleontologist (1997).
  • Internet: Barbie went online in 1998 with My Design, which lets girls create their own dolls before purchase.
Barbie cost $3 in 1959. The price now averages $10.

Written by Rachel Beck