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More dolls, fewer screens: Barbie promotes the brain benefits of play

Today, Mattel’s timeless toy brand Barbie kicks off ‘A doll can help change the world’, a new campaign inspired by recent neuroscience research indicating the positive cognitive and behavioral impacts of playing with dolls.

Can a doll change the world? Mattel thinks so. The toy giant is today debuting a global campaign inspired by the findings of a recent neuroscience study conducted by researchers at Cardiff University in conjunction with Barbie.

Part of Barbie’s ‘You Can Be Anything’ initiative – which seeks to empower children to pursue their dreams – the new campaign, ‘A doll can help change the world’, features various scenes of children engaged in thoughtful acts with their dolls. Each moment is paired with a text overlay, stressing the value of qualities like empathy, generosity, patience, inclusivity and understanding. The film wraps with a series of quick cuts: one child pushes a doll on a swing, while another brushes a doll’s hair. It closes with the line: “If a doll can help a child develop empathy, a doll can change the world.”

“As category leaders in the doll category, we’ve always known that doll play has a positive impact on kids, builds storytelling, imagination and creativity,” says Lisa McKnight, senior vice president and global head of Barbie & Dolls at Mattel. “The benefits of doll play have been somewhat underappreciated by parents, as imaginative play patterns do not have a tangible output, such as finishing a craft or drawing a picture,” says McKnight. “The research from Cardiff University provides us with neuroscientific data that demonstrates the positive benefits doll play has on preparing children for the future through nurturing social skills like empathy.”

The serious science behind having fun with dolls

Researchers employed neuroimaging to study the brains of children playing with dolls like Barbie. They observed that even when children played alone, parts of the brain associated with social information processing lit up with activity.

“We use this area of the brain when we think about other people, especially when we think about another person’s thoughts or feelings,” Cardiff University lead researcher Dr Sarah Gerson said in a statement. “Dolls encourage them to create their own little imaginary worlds, as opposed to say, problem-solving or building games. They encourage children to think about other people and how they might interact with each other.”

The findings suggest that the act of playing with dolls supports children's ability to develop social processing skills and empathy – key determinants of future success in areas like socializing and academics.

To bring these findings to life, Barbie teamed with BBH LA. “If every child is taught empathy, and holds onto this skill, nurtures it and grows up with it, the next generation as a whole will be more empathetic – which has the potential to change everything,” says Katie Acosta, head of strategy at BBH LA. “The world needs more empathy right now and a doll can help us get there.”

Acosta says that BBH LA wanted to demonstrate the findings of the study accurately – but to convey these facts through the emotion involved in these kind acts. “We had to balance the science and the emotion. We solved for this by leading with emotion through the storytelling and grounding it fact.”

A natural evolution of the Barbie brand

The campaign adds to the Barbie brand’s larger efforts to evolve in response to various social and culture shifts of recent years. After receiving years of criticism regarding the potential impacts of Barbie’s appearance on children’s self-esteem and body image, the brand has taken a number of strides to expand representation and inclusivity in its product lines. Consumers can now buy Barbie dolls with a range of different body shapes, skin colors, and even dolls in wheelchairs or who have skin patches of different tones – designed to represent people with a skin condition called vitiligo.

McKnight says that ‘A doll can help change the world’ is especially appropriate for the moment in which we’re living. “[Children are] spending more time than ever at home — so the results could not be more relevant,” she says.

She also hopes that the study’s findings “provide comfort to parents that doll play is time well spent and something to be encouraged”. The brand recently conducted a global survey of more than 15,000 parents in 22 countries. It found that, as of last July, 91% of parents ranked empathy as a key social skill they would like their child to develop, but only 24% were aware that doll play can help their child develop these skills.

The film will debut on broadcast and social today. The campaign will be further activated via retail initiatives and brand partnerships, including an editorial partnership with The Washington Post that will roll out on May 10. The hope is that it will ultimately aid the brand’s current growth trend. A spokesperson for the brand confirmed that Barbie had a record-breaking year in 2020, seeing its highest year-over-year growth in over two decades.

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