Branding, unsurprisingly, started with cows. When it moved from livestock to consumer goods, it expanded from a mark of ownership to a mark of consistency, but also of quality. As Andy Warhol put it in 1965, “All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.” The same went for Barbie.
What this meant was brand owners could begin to decouple consistency and quality. If all the Cokes are good, they need not actually be the same. You can have Diet Coke, Cherry Coke, Vanilla Coke. You can have coke bottled in Bialystok and Bilbao. You can have squirts of Coke syrup mixed with nozzled soda water, and by the power of the brand, all of it is Coke. The material existence of the product and the symbolic existence of the brand become more separated than ever but also more mutually dependent. Marketing, advertising, research (and a chunk of Warhol’s art) is very often about understanding and exploiting the relationship between them. The product Barbie creates the brand Barbie, but the brand Barbie is what then makes the existence of Ken possible.
By the late-90s – when I sold out and started working in the ‘communications industry’ – excitement in the symbolic side of branding had reached a new level. Much of the talk was around the intangible assets a brand represented on a balance sheet – its “equity”. But the new models of branding held that those assets sprang from a brand’s existence as a symbol for something wider than just a product range – what it represented in people’s mind beyond the product. Escape. Joy. Security. Rebellion. This was its brand image, or brand personality. Coca-Cola, for instance, meant happiness. Volkswagen meant safety. As for Barbie, Barbie meant fun, imagination and aspiration – three qualities the brand knotted firmly together. “With Barbie”, gushes the Superbrands site, “A little girl can be whatever she wants to be!”. A paragraph or two before they write “Barbie is always successful… always fun.”
Marketers and businesses loved this new emphasis on the symbolic aspect of branding. For a start, if a brand could plausibly claim to be different because of its ‘personality’, it could make savings at the sharp end, in production and quality control. But more – aligning a brand with happiness or fun ennobled it, and let marketers see themselves as something more creative than simple businessmen. Like artists, brand owners had their hands deep in the clay of the human psyche, manipulating powerful, ancient ideas. Research into brands became ever more focused on brand image – whether or not people could detect their symbolic identities.
This emphasis on brand image had two huge potential flaws. First, business people were not especially good at the manipulation of symbols. They tended to approach brand in the same way they had approached production – something to be set, scaled up and controlled. They wanted their brands not just to be symbols, but fixed symbols, which left them running to catch up with more playful or imaginative uses of their brand. “Subverting” a brand is one of the oldest tricks in the DIY artist’s book, but it works partly because brands are – or were – so uptight about their symbolic potential.
The other flaw is that brand image glossed over the other side of branding – the everyday reality of the product. And not just the often awful conditions in which it’s made. Marketing books are full of stories of managers spending time with the people who actually bought their stuff and being astonished at what they actually did with it. The idea that the intended use of something and its actual uses are different is a no-brainer for any critic, just like the idea that fixed symbols are vulnerable to inversion and playful manipulation – but marketers have rarely paid much attention to critics.
“Barbie Girl” works because it hits both of these brand flaws at once. It starts from part of the everyday reality of dolls which is absolutely familiar to most adolescents but which Mattel can’t directly admit: one of the things bored kids of a certain age do with toys is make them have sex. And then it exploits the Barbie brand’s attempt at being a fixed symbol for fun by making Barbie’s chirpy sexy funtimes be an exploitative relationship with a leering brute.
For me, both of these succeed because of the other – it means “Barbie Girl” doesn’t settle down into commentary or crassness. Crassness on its own gets you “Cotton Eyed Joe”. Commentary on its own is more worthy, but ends up fighting fun with not-fun, often to their mutual bafflement. Aqua, very obviously, are flirting with crassness a lot more than anything else, but they’re also happily complicating their hooks-first annoyance value at the same time as they push it unashamedly hard.
Their best – meaning funniest – asset in all this is René Dif as “Ken”, playing the Einar to Lene Nystrom’s Bjork. At the time some critics took “Barbie Girl” entirely at face value and condemned its Neanderthal attitudes and/or gross materialism – criticisms that really shouldn’t survive their first brush with Dif’s saucer-eyed, wolfish voice, which is absolutely committed but an easy tip off that whatever else this record is, it’s not seriously endorsing much of anything. Most of the rest of the anti-Aqua focused on the record’s hammering catchiness – “Barbie Girl” infuriated enough people to be voted the worst record of the 90s in Rolling Stone, only three years ago. People can’t choose what annoys them, of course, so all I can say is that this song doesn’t bother me. Aqua – like most Europop – are remorseless in their dedication to earworming you, and accept your later loathing as collateral damage. After four weeks I was as pleased as anyone for Barbie to bugger off back to her dream home, but I’m happy to hear the record now.
The third big criticism of “Barbie Girl” is that it sexualised Barbie. There’s no way of refuting this – it’s much of the point of the record, and even if the lyrics had no undressing or hanky panky, the entire duet dynamic relies on smutty oversinging, So why not go all in? Another way of hearing “Barbie Girl” is as a consensual kink scene – playing dolls as playing roles. The (glorious) video even backs this up to an extent: Barbie World may well be Barbie’s world, but Lene and René are certainly making no attempt to cosplay Barbie and Ken (“Why is Ken bald?” cry several of the 110 million YouTube viewers). They’re tourists here, having a splashy delight of a time, acting like naughty toys. In the final scenes someone dressed very like an actual Ken shows up, and looks – like Mattel – entirely horrified.
A footnote: In my outline of branding I’ve stuck to the past tense because attitudes have shifted a little recently – the Internet has forced brand image to become more flexible and has seen a huge surge of interest in ‘user experience’ which connects brands and products more intimately. This will end up being important to Popular – honest! – as you can also see a difference in how pop acts are conceived and marketed. Meanwhile, Aqua’s ambiguity is something a savvier company can and will catch up with – after years of embarrassingly trying to sue the band, Mattel inevitably ended up in 2009 just adapting “Barbie Girl” for an ad campaign.