Best Day Ever! Behind the Expansive Efforts to Market the “Barbie” Movie

The “Barbie” movie turned into a blockbuster this year, aided in part by one of the most expansive efforts ever to market a film, stretching far beyond movie trailers and interviews with the stars. Warner Bros. and the Mattel toy company created more ways to reach generations of consumers who have a connection to the doll and the “Barbie” image.  

On a recent episode of the Newhouse Impact podcast, Regina Luttrell, senior associate dean and associate professor of public relations at Newhouse, and Carrie Welch, a media studies research assistant, shared their research on the marketing effort behind “Barbie” and what it might mean for the future.  

Below are excerpts of the conversation between Luttrell, Welch with WAER’s Chris Bolt. Newhouse Impact is a collaboration of the school and WAER 88.3

Listen to the whole discussion by visiting the podcast episode page.  

As you started to deconstruct the campaign, what you found was extremely complex and intentional. Your research mentions how they slowly released content throughout the promotional period through a “breadcrumbs strategy.” Can you tell us more about this?  


That’s actually how Mattel and Warner Bros. described it. It was interesting to see a few articles come out towards the latter part of the summer where they described what they did in the campaign. They knew they had a potential hit on their hands, but they had to lead people to it because everyone came in with preconceived notions of what “Barbie” was going to be or not going to be. And they wanted to make sure that people were able to discover it on their own. 

They launched their first preview during the theatrical run of the second “Avatar”. This was almost like putting a stake in the sand, a way of saying that they were just as big as “Avatar.” And the trailer was a parody of the opening sequence of the movie, “2001: A Space Odyssey.” So, they were kind of swinging for the fences from the very beginning. Warner Bros. and Mattel explicitly said that was what they were doing, and that it was driven by confidence in the movie’s director, Greta Gerwig.  (The movie has earned more than $1.3 billion, the first billion-dollar movie made by a woman director and the highest-grossing film ever for Warner Bros.)  


You know, I think Mattel really took a chance here. From the very onset, they had to give-up control. Greta Gerwig did not give them the script, did not let them in. None of that. She had complete, creative control on her end. And I think that’s really hard and brave for a brand to do. I mean, they asked to see the script and she sent them back a poem. 

The Barbie doll has been around since the 1950s and so many different age groups have attachments as well as, perhaps, preconceived notions. There were also larger themes present in the movie: feminism, patriarchy, etc. What did they do in terms of marketing to indicate that this wasn’t just a movie about a toy? 


Of course, the movie itself was not just a cartoon of Barbie. I have two daughters and we watched a lot of “Barbie” cartoons when they were growing up, but this was a very different depiction. It was much more. At the beginning, Barbieland seems to have solved all the issues of feminism and sexism, right? But then Barbie (played by actress Margot Robbie) crosses over into the real world and she’s objectified for the first time, she’s catcalled for the first time and so on. In other words, the kind of negative things that a lot of women experience on a daily basis. And the speech that America Ferrera’s character gives about all this is so important and critical to the movie. Because, as women, I think we all feel these things intrinsically. 


I think that the marketing was very astute in their approach as they didn’t overtly call this a feminist movie. Because they knew it would have alienated some people. I’m a card-carrying feminist myself, so I would show up and be first in line. But I also know that a lot of individuals don’t really know what feminism means and are even afraid of it. So, the marketing team was very careful to say that this was a movie for everyone. And the fact that it is now the highest-grossing movie ever for Warner Bros., proves they succeeded. 

I mean, I talked to a bunch of dads who brought their daughters to “Barbie.” And I asked them if they had seen any of the marketing before they went and how old their daughters were and how it all went. Many mentioned how their daughters now know what feminism and patriarchy are. At that, part of me thought that “well, they already did,” even if they were only nine or even younger. 

So, I think it’s been an interesting journey for people in terms of feminism. What’s tough about feminism is that it means lots of different things to lots of different people. Much like inclusion and diversity, people view it in different, intersected ways. But I think this movie offered a lot for a lot of people.