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Apr 14

AQUA – “Barbie Girl”

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#776, 1st November 1997

barbie 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.

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  1. 1
    flahr on 1 Apr 2014 #

    This song marks the only occasion on which my music writing for the student newspaper ever received comment. I did a ‘classic album’ review of Aquarium, and as an adjunct to that wrote a rather long* thinkpiece on the feminist implications of “Barbie Girl” (readable here) – this was, of course, too long/borin^H^H^H^H^Havant-garde for the paper, but they supplied my email address at the end of the article for anyone who wanted to read it to contact me via.

    A week later, I received an email – from the editor of the newspaper, formally apologising to me for publishing my email address, since it transpires this was against the newspaper’s code of practice.

    Anyway, this is an occasion where the bunnies are so much better that I think of “Barbie Girl” as bland by comparison and somewhat resent its being so much more famous. Good drumming tho’. 5?

    *’rather long’ to be taken in comparison with the paper’s typical Christgau-sized reviews – it’s probably shorter than most of Punctum’s opening sentences

  2. 2
    JLucas on 1 Apr 2014 #

    For me this song is at the absolute pinnacle of its genre (i.e. gleefully novelty Euro-pop).

    I love Aqua. A little of their chipmunky pop-art goes a long way, but they were always a lot smarter than their critics gave them credit for.

    I also adore a forthcoming Bunny where they briefly wrong-footed everyone who wrote them off as a one-trick pony. But we’ll get to that.

  3. 3
    Izzy on 1 Apr 2014 #

    Woah, I had completely forgotten about this. Such a magnificent, clever, catchy, cheeky, hooky record, it is pure joy. ‘Absolute pinnacle of its genre’ is right. (10)

  4. 4
    Chelovek na lune on 1 Apr 2014 #

    Fabulous write-up around what is really a pretty fabulous *product* (the video being a near-essential accompaniment to the song). Lene’s strained little-girl-lost voice – clearly put on as part of the act – would be grating at greater length, but, along with René’s vocal leering, it’s all part of the show, and key to the chararacterisation.

    Good, unexpectedly intelligent, pop that reveals itself as a delight once the initial, quite possibly intended, sense of irritation has worn away. 8.

    (on branding, and as a not entirely unrelated aside: to my knowledge only one Scando-pop act has had their name, or a slight variant thereof, adopted by a mobile phone operator: Ace&Base, serving Ukraine a few years after the height of the melancholy Swedes’ fame. Can’t help thinking an Aqua-fon might have been a bit more playfully, engagingly, fun)

  5. 5
    lonepilgrim on 1 Apr 2014 #

    I don’t remember seeing the video before – but it’s a lot of fun. That and the song are like a poppier response to ‘In Every Dream Home a Heartache’.

  6. 6
    hectorthebat on 1 Apr 2014 #

    Sample watch: The drums are from “Give it Up” by The Goodmen, and are therefore the same drums as on Fairground by Simply Red.

  7. 7
    James BC on 1 Apr 2014 #

    My brother played this on repeat while I was on the computer. When I hear it I still see Sim Tower.

  8. 8
    Seb Patrick on 1 Apr 2014 #

    As an indie music-loving teenager, obviously I hated this when it was out – and yes, would probably still hate it if it were on the radio all the time. Nowadays, when it’s more commonly encountered on late night music television or in karaoke booths, I faintly love it to the extent that I’d have given it a higher mark than 6.

  9. 9
    Kinitawowi on 1 Apr 2014 #

    Torn.

    ‘Nuff said.

    2.

  10. 10
    Izzy on 1 Apr 2014 #

    6: I’m absolutely gobsmacked by this! I mean it’s obvious now that I know, but so many times I heard this record and never even noticed the beat, let alone placed it.

  11. 11
    thefatgit on 1 Apr 2014 #

    Time has been kind to “Barbie Girl”. I tend to smile when I hear it. And I too, believe it has a deeper feminist message, like “The Land Of Make Believe” was a critique on Thatcherism, BG held up a mirror to what the Patriarchy expected young girls “should” aspire to. Yes, BG is much more feminist than any declaration of Girl Power. Not that BG made me think about the Patriarchy in 1997. When I first heard this on the radio, I thought it was Whigfield with a comeback single. Aqua? Who is this Aqua? MTV provided the answer with the bright cartoon-coloured video. It definitely put a different spin on the song, watching Rene’s leery “come on Barbie/let’s go party” interjections. But a pop song as seemingly simple as this can be fashioned to fit anyone’s view, for good or ill. Either skip along the surface and see it as nothing more than a song about a doll, or delve deeper and think about how a little girl’s interactions with her doll is how they make sense of the world they exist in. And how a male-dominated society skews their dreams and ambitions. How girls are taught to apologise for being girls, how the burden of being a girl in a man’s world, means everything from hair to shoes is so much hassle.

    What do boys have to do? Mostly keep their pits and privates clean and wander through life without having to worry about what others think of them, or if anyone is following them or judging them or if today’s the day they get raped.

    My daughter played with Barbie and Cindy, her British competitor. She was too old for those Hip Hop usurpers, Bratz. The Cindy dolls used to belong to her mum. The Barbies were birthday and Christmas presents, presented in garish Pepto-Bismol pink boxes with accessories and outfits and shoes. The outfits for both were interchangeable, although Cindy’s paisley leisure-suits and maxi-dresses clashed with Barbie’s on-point ’90s fashions. It didn’t matter. What difference is there between Twiggy and Cher Horowitz to a 10 year-old girl? They all ended up with back-combed hair poking out of pink or yellow hair-bands, lined up in a row as my daughter re-enacted school more often than not. Ken never got a look in. Ken never featured in her world. After what seemed like a few short months, they all ended up back in the box in the attic as her attentions turned to Beanie Babies. Such is the fate of all Barbies, one supposes, packed in a box in the attic until the next generation come along to play with them again. Barbie doesn’t rot. Barbie will “outlive” us all. One hopes the attitudes that Barbie helps to reinforce, wont.

  12. 12
    mapman132 on 1 Apr 2014 #

    Since I’ve been following this site regularly, I’ve tried to guess what Tom’s rating is going to be based on his past preferences. Sometimes I do better than other times (The Verve’s low rating surprised me; CITW’s did not), but this record may have been the hardest to guess yet. Brilliant piece of catchy satire, or cheesy piece of annoying crap? I was pretty sure 10 wasn’t happening, but honestly any score from 1 to 9 would not have shocked me.

    So I’m happy to see it get a decent score. I myself am wavering between 7 and 8 – it seems the very definition of “earworm”. I wouldn’t want to hear it over and over again, but in small doses, it’s quite fun. And making fun of a well-known brand is just an added bonus.

    Back in 97, this was one of those occasional hits that was unique enough to inspire its own newspaper articles. In fact, I think this may have been how I was introduced to it, reading about it before I actually heard it on the radio. It peaked at #7 on the Hot 100, which understated its US impact as I think its chart life was affected by a limited single release which may have in turn been caused by Mattel’s legal pressure at the time. I remember the video was particularly popular – kind of a Youtube-type meme before there was a Youtube. It spent multiple weeks atop the request chart of video channel The Box, which was otherwise dominated by hardcore rap videos that MTV wouldn’t touch.

    This song appeared to be a classic one-hit wonder at the time, but as we know, we’ll be encountering Aqua twice more here. Of course, this wouldn’t be the last time a successful career would be launched with what many would consider a novelty hit – a far more spectacular example will occur 11 years later….

  13. 13
    JR1 on 1 Apr 2014 #

    This was a fun track. The female singer sounded like she was channeling early Madonna (though with, of course, less impressive musical results).

  14. 14
    Andrew Farrell on 1 Apr 2014 #

    #12 That’s quite unfair to Alexandra Burke, I can’t help thinking…

  15. 15
    anto on 1 Apr 2014 #

    I’ve never really associated it with Barbie as in Mattel’s Barbie. Maybe because she doesn’t have blonde hair. It hardly matters as I think this is chronic gunk, facing in the opposite direction, ho hum.

  16. 16
    nixon on 1 Apr 2014 #

    Kind of surprised nobody has drawn parallels between the Girl Power marketing of the last entry and this. Barbie the brand found itself unwillingly repositioned in the 90s, and not in a flattering way – Mattel may have been baffled that their creation had stopped being progressive (she can be a surgeon! She can be black! Well, one of her friends is, but it’s the same basic doll extruded in dark brown plastic, does it matter if we put a different name on the box?)

    But this record plays to the new cultural shorthand image of Barbie, seemingly obvious though actually relatively recent (in terms of the doll’s lifespan): the perception of Barbie as an airheaded bimbo, a vapid woman with a defined and defining role in a patriarchy, not only an unsuitable role model but actually a potentially damaging influence, from body image to intellectual ambition to relationships.

    One of my favourite things about the record is that it plays Barbie as a pathetic, tragic figure (I won’t say “sad” as it’s not actually made clear whether the narrator is meant to be happy with her lot). To take Tom’s imagery one step further, at what point does a doll being put through the motions of sex become an out and out sex doll?

    By using Barbie as an implied pejorative – take a good look, girls, is this REALLY what you want to be? – I think it becomes a kind of cautionary tale which makes a great deal more of an effective Girl Power point than, say, prancing about in your pants, or a Union Jack dress. Had the Spice Girls dolls hit the market at this point?

    Also, it’s maddening in its catchy pounding, which is great. 7 or 8 for me.

  17. 17
    ciaran on 2 Apr 2014 #

    I was half dreading going near this one as I expected a hostile reception given the ‘worst song/Number 1 ever’ existence it has had to endure but I’m delighted to read the largely positive comments so far. Don’t know if this is the best comparison but it seems like the ‘Japanese Boy’ of the 90s.

    When you consider what Tom has had to endure since Hanson I wouldn’t be annoyed with BG at all. Fair dues for Aqua to make a universal single – wish i’d thought of it.

    The package is what sells it here. Fun name, Cracking video, Inspired title.You couldn’t ignore it really.Like CITW perfect for substituting your own words to it which was surely done everywhere but unlike CITW a very welcome listen.

    A 7 for sure. Best get back to proper geezer music like Oasis/Blur now and pretend that I’m outraged by this!

  18. 18
    taDOW on 2 Apr 2014 #

    heymanrememberthenineties? love how this is a mix of 90s ironic anti-corporatism (by this point hardening into an adbusters/baffler shell) and boom economy giddiness. for me in 97 it was part of a string of ridiculously shameless pop singles that i fell in love w/ that summer, each better than the last, ‘barbie girl’ being preceded by los umbrellos’ now forgotten ‘no tengo dinero’ and followed by the chumbawumba’s still recurrent ‘tubthumping’. it occurs to me now that all three play w/ that ‘children of marx and coca cola’ dynamic. i played the hell out of stereolab that summer as well.

    listening to ‘barbie girl’ now what strikes me isn’t the obv lol 90s aspect of it but how surprisingly contemporary this thing could be, released today it would be obvious clickbait pop a la ‘gangnam style’ and ‘the fox’, the sort of corrupting force in the charts whose presence at #1 would be indicative of how things are wrong now, how the internet has changed everything. still, it’s no ‘tubthumping’. it’s no ‘gangnam style’ either. 6.

  19. 19
    Jarman on 2 Apr 2014 #

    As someone who is not much a fan of Europop by any meas, “Barbie Girl” kind of terrifies me because it does something I don’t think should be done and it does it very, very well — probably better than anyone ever has. This absolutely deserved to be a number one hit, for better or worse.

  20. 20
    tonya on 2 Apr 2014 #

    I can’t separate this from all the feminist Barbie theory I read in the early 90’s. Her lack of a real response to the “c’mon Barbie let’s go party” also makes me think of the college consent codes and no-means-no culture. There’s no way I could have not seen this as a feminist record in 1997. 8 or 9 from me, it might be a 10 if I could stand Ken (Einar’s) voice.

    Re Coca Cola: I knew someone who attended a presentation by a senior Coca-Cola executive in 1981 or so, and the exec said “Coke is only ever Coke, and there will never be a Diet Coke.”

  21. 21
    Billy Hicks on 2 Apr 2014 #

    My Dad, who had recently turned the age of thirty, picked me up from school one autumn afternoon. “I just heard the worst song ever!” he said in the car on the way home, eager to hear my reaction. “It goes ‘I’m a Barbie Girl in a Barbie world’?!” I laughed, thinking he was joking. Soon enough I heard for real what he was talking about.

    This outpeaked ‘Wannabe’ as the song that I decided I hated more than anything else in the world. It was about GIRLS and only girls liked it, stupid icky girls and I bet whoever likes this likes the Spice Girls as well. Any irony or parody went completely over my head – indeed I thought the song was a complete celebration/idolisation of Barbie and would not have been surprised had I learned it was produced by Mattel themselves. So I made up my own version to amuse in the school playground. Sadly today I only remember half of it, starting with “You can eat my hair, and throw me anywhere, imagination, nothing’s your creation”. Then Ken’s bit turned into “Barbie I don’t want to go party”. My fellow Year 4s judged it hilarious, and for the first time – if briefly – I could actually consider myself cool, even with the older Year 6s.

    Can’t really bring myself to give it more than a 6 today as I never had that real liking of the song over a million others did, but agreed production-wise it *is* the late 1990s and a very well put together song. What I didn’t know was that they’d get better, to the point where by 1998 I could happily call myself a fan of theirs!

  22. 22
    swanstep on 2 Apr 2014 #

    Tom, I find your ‘two huge potential flaws’ paragraphs difficult to follow: is the difference between the two flaws just the difference between two sorts of audience? Semiotic sophisticates/subversives will turn your product on its head for their own ends, ….and so will, to a smaller but more potent degree, kids’ own uses of the product. On this reading, Aqua are both arch sophisticates and kids who grew up ripping their dolls’ arms off, etc.. Is that what you’re saying? But if so how does that distinguish them from everyone else who’s mutilated a few dolls in the name of high art/protest, etc, e.g., Cindy Sherman?

    I tend to think that Aqua differ from Sherman, et al. in that they have at least some affection for the damn doll and the idealized happy life it represents (not so different, after all, from the glamorous world of pop videos or the fashions of Clueless), and ingeniously their song tries to not only get inside Barbie’s head but also make sense of a whole strand of persistently ludicrous pop music, i.e., as what Barbie and Ken listen to.

    I didn’t get this myself immediately at the time, but I was brought up short when my ultra-feminist g/friend dug the hell out of the tune. Part of her response was just that, ha, she loved to set aside the weight of the world and bop around to Hi-NRG pop, but the other side was the track’s true ingenuity which she had to explain to me. Just as The Matrix‘s master-stroke (and the thing it had over all of the other’90s ‘virtual reality’ films (13th Floor, Existenz, etc.) was that it provided a kind of retrospective explanation for martial arts movies (‘they can do all their wild moves because they’re in a mind-constituted Matrix’). Similarly, Aqua’s master-stroke is retrospectively explaining everything from The Archies to SAW to 2 Unlimited to Whigfield (and predicting the appeal of Nsync, Krazy Bunny, What does the Bunny say?, etc.).

    Note that there was plenty of griping but amusing thought in the early ’90s to the effect that ‘that bitch Barbie *is* everywhere, she *can* do anything’. Here’s Kathleen Hanna in Melody Maker in 1994:
    “You know how there’s a Rap Barbie doll? We in Bikini Kill have got this feeling that they’re gonna start manufacturing a Riot Barbie. And she’ll come packaged with a little beat-up guitar, some miniature spray paints that don’t work and a miniature list of dumb revolutionary slogans like ‘Riot Coke just for the taste of it’.”
    One person’s subversion is another person’s brand extension and occupation of every niche I suppose. Anyhow, BG both depicts Barbie’s World and raises the question of the extent to which that’s the real world. That’s conceptually superb in the way that ‘Setting Sun’ was, or ‘Relax’ and ‘Two Tribes’ were. The music’s not quite at the level of Aqua’s follow-up tracks, but this is their conceptual high-point and in my books it’s an easy:
    8

  23. 23
    weej on 2 Apr 2014 #

    The thing I loved about Aqua was their ability to present adult life in all its complexity as a fun game for everyone to play. The videos are an essential part of this, and Barbie Girl in particular is a complete success – a parody, a cultural critique and social commentary all rolled into one, but never feeling preachy or pessimistic. Other examples of this sort of thing tend to have too much of a knowing wink about them, but Aqua are happy to invite everyone, whether they ‘get it’ or not.
    A 9 for me.

    Swanstep @22 – The Fox isn’t a bunny, in fact it only got to number 17 in the UK. Surprisingly enough for such a big novelty hit it only got to #1 in Norway.

  24. 24
    swanstep on 2 Apr 2014 #

    @weej, 23. Thanks for that clarification. I don’t pay close attention to the charts these days, but I tend to just assume that if I hear about it (esp. through my nieces and nephews) then it must have topped the charts (and charts seem so close to uniform across the world these days). In this case the enthusiasm of my young relatives for the track – in their world it was huge! – misled me.

  25. 25
    Cumbrian on 2 Apr 2014 #

    On branding: I appreciated Tom’s opening to this entry. I have a (possibly inside baseball) question on this though. I work in market research for a company that makes stuff for kids and, through that work, have struggled to work out whether kids (below a certain age at least) have any real concept of brands, at least that they can articulate. When you ask them about their favourite toy/TV channel/game/website and why it’s their favourite, they don’t tend to say things that you tend to think of as brandable (a good example is TV channels, where they tend to say something is a favourite because it’s got x, y and z show and I like them – not that the channel itself is funny, interesting, dramatic, etc). In some respects, this is quite refreshing – kids won’t just swallow any old rubbish that you’re trying to tell them about some product or other. This has lead us down the route of advertising features of the products rather than anything more brand led or sophisticated, that kids just don’t appear to get. On the other hand, there are branding elements that clearly work for kids, even if they can’t articulate it (monkeys advertising Coco Pops for instance).

    So, when it comes to down to it, who is the branding around Barbie for? Is it for the kids – and it’s having some subconscious effect, or is it for the parents (who will probably be the gatekeeper for whether Barbie is put in their child’s hands)? Or both in some measure?

    On the song: this is alright, I reckon. Satire wrapped in europop that I don’t really want to listen to more than a couple of times. Tied into the above though, I’m not sure that the actual point of it would have been got by children – not that this necessarily matters, though I guess it might – so I look at it as a weirdly adult message wrapped in something that might appeal to children, like a good Pixar movie. I would have been up for Torn getting a week at #1 out of Aqua’s 4 though. Would have been nice to have both.

  26. 26
    Tom on 2 Apr 2014 #

    #25 Young kids react to branding on a fairly visceral logo-association level (the cattle/consistency level) – every now and then you’ll get a horror-story poll going round about 3 year olds recognising McDonalds but not their own surname (or something). The thing about shows and channels is interesting – kids don’t particularly care about umbrella brands like a channel or a supermarket, and they don’t really get branding in that sense, but they do get congruence (which underpins a lot of branding). I used to play a game with my kids called “Daddy Got It Wrong” where I would get details of a show wrong by inserting some character from a different show eg “My favourite episode of Chuggington is where Spud switches the signals so all the Chuggers get confused”, which was the cue for the 3-year old in question to bellow “DADDY GOT IT WRONG” and explain that Spud was in a different programme.

    But I think that changes fairly early. CBBC/Cbeebies (as we’ll be talking about very soon!) is a good example, because the branding is grounded in something the kids do think about once they start school – is this babyish/something I’ve grown out of? I think a more adult sense of branding starts creeping in too – my 7 year old just had to do the “what do you want to do when you grow up?” talk at school, and his answers (footballer and videogame designer) included the detail that he would be a designer for “Nintendo or Activision”.

    Said 7 year old also found “Barbie Girl” hilarious and horrifying, unfortunately because “it’s for girls” rather than anything else. (My 4 year old loved it and ran around going “Barbie let’s go party!” for ages.) Which is the really pernicious element of branding and kids – the stuff that works tends to be the stuff that goes with the grain of gender-specificity in the culture, which in turn creates even more of it.

  27. 27
    Tom on 2 Apr 2014 #

    “Torn” is definitely one of those songs that ‘should’ have been a number one but to be honest I’ve never liked it that much and I’m no sadder that I don’t get to write about eg Texas.

  28. 28
    iconoclast on 2 Apr 2014 #

    I remember this as being simultaneously aggressively inane and infuriatingly catchy, both to a high degree; however, at seventeen years’ remove it comes across more as harmless, albeit mildly enjoyable, nonsense. I can’t help wondering what was wrong with her voice, though. SIX.

  29. 29
    Tom on 2 Apr 2014 #

    #22 The two flaws are related, certainly – they both center on the way branding leads to a kind of corporate self-absorbtion. The first though is a sin of commission – companies trying to fix the abstract/symbolic meaning of their brand which leaves them (more) vulnerable to other people’s play with it – or just to the drift in meaning that comes from them being unable to control who buys it. (There’s another related issue – the belief in “target demographics” – but that’s actually more relevant to the next two entries…)

    The second flaw is a sin of omission – marketers caring so much about their brand that they lose touch with how it ‘works’ in the real world. This has a much easier solution – it’s not actually that difficult to do “consumer ethnography” or UX. I think you’re quite right about the difference: the enthusiasm for the product – which is definitely part of Aqua’s deal – is crucial here. Aqua are making dolls have sex as a version of ‘playing with dolls’, it’s still playful and silly and imaginative i.e. still well within the use-cases of a toy.

  30. 30
    Rory on 2 Apr 2014 #

    Cumbrian @25: “Parents … will probably be the gatekeeper for whether Barbie is put in their child’s hands” underestimates the devastating power of the wrapped Christmas/birthday present from extended family.

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