Typing Faster

March 12, 2010

When Merchandising Goes Wrong: Mad Men, Mattel and Barbie

Filed under: Future of TV, Kvetch, Mad Men, the biz — petertypingfaster @ 7:00 am

Producers and broadcasters are often concerned with milking every last bit of potential revenue from whatever projects they do. This is, of course, perfectly natural. Producing film and television is ridiculously expensive, of course you’re going to do everything in your power to make that money back.

Enter merchandising. To wit:

Usually I have no problem with merchandising, and in truth I rarely give it much thought. Some merchandising is great, helping to really build a brand (think Star Wars). But every now and then things go horribly, horribly wrong.

That’s right folks, Mad Men has given Mattel the right to make Barbie dolls of some of its more popular characters.

Oh Mad Men, what have you gone and done now? Just as the programme had firmly established itself as a work of integrity, artistic greatness and perfection, someone behind the scenes has sold out. Licensing rights to Don and Betty Draper, Roger Sterling and Joan Holloway have been acquired by Mattel, the people who make Barbie, with Mad Men dolls due go on sale in the US this summer, to coincide with the fourth series in the US.

Mad Men fans will try to persuade themselves – as I am trying to do, desperately and unsuccessfully – that this news is not as bad as it seems. The dolls are to be designed for “adult collectors” rather than children. But they will still be sold – for $74.95 a pop – under the title “the Barbie fashion model collection.”

The blood runs cold. This is a terrible, compromising thing for the Mad Men team to have done. Mad Men – encompassing the characters of Don, Betty and Joan in particular – is a superb brand: super-cool, uncompromising, ironic and iconic. How on earth is it going to sustain its cult appeal if it resorts to the merchandising route?

Merchandising is the curse of any televisual brand. It needs to be seen to emerge organically – remember when fashion shoots were all in the style of Life on Mars and suddenly everyone wanted a beaten up 1970s leather jacket? – it can’t just be licensed and marketed. And in any case, dolls are surely one of the worst products on offer; reminiscent of Thunderbirds or the Spice Girls at their most insane commercial heights. What next? A chaste Betty lingerie diffusion range? A set of Peggy notebooks and pens? A Salvatore limited edition closet designed by Philippe Starck?

Mad Men Barbies make the show look like Dallas or Dynasty where it’s all about caricatures. But Mad Men is not supposed to have that kind of legacy; it’s so much more subtle. Someone please just make all this merchandising go away – at least before they think up a JR-style “Who drank my martini?” Don Draper T-shirt.

Ugh. What were they thinking?



  1. They were probably thinking that the early 1960s in which the show is set, was the era in which Barbie came into her own, that the fashions and attitudes reflect the frozen-in-time doll whose look has changed in minor ways, but mores have not. So I can see why Mattel might’ve approached them, but not why the producers of Madmen agreed, except perhaps it struck them as being a hilarious notion, “Madmen Barbie? Really? Bwahhahahahah! Okay, sure, I’ll sign,” and that was it. Or they backed a truckload of money up to their house. Works for just about anybody, so I’ve seen.

    Comment by Garner Haines — March 12, 2010 @ 8:46 am

    • Oh yeah, it’s definitely an attractive deal for Mattel. They get the opportunity to hitch their brand to one of the rising cultural touch stones. You hit the nail on the head with the question of why the producers of Mad Men agreed though. That’s what makes no sense to me.

      Must of been a big dump truck…

      Comment by petertypingfaster — March 12, 2010 @ 9:03 am

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