Ken and Barbie in Hollywood

By: Dan Bessie

Man in Toys-R-Us to Saleswoman: "Does Barbie come with Ken?" Saleswoman: "No, Barbie comes with G.I. Joe. She fakes it with Ken." Herb Caen, San Francisco Chronicle

February 1969. The company is Wakeford-Orloff, Inc., then one of Hollywood's premier TV commercial producers. I'm the in house animation director. And on this particular occasion, called on to help seduce millions of pre-pubescent girls into manipulating mom and dad into forking over hard earned bucks for the latest permutation of Mattel Toy's stock in trade, Barbie.

In this case, I'm assigned to produce (but not direct) a thirty-second "Barbie and Ken in love" spot. As it happens, Mattel's ad agency, Carson/Roberts, has muffed their deadline. So the job, normally four to six weeks work, has to be ready to screen in ten days. Ten days? My stomach turns somersaults. No time for anything but bullshit. I'll leave that to the art director, since my first meeting with him, in which he blames Mattel for the short deadline, convinces me that he's a master of the art.

Twittering birds are to be featured, flying around Barbie and Ken. Disney run amuck. But no Thumper or Bambi, just birds. Birds are adorable. Birds sound happy. Birds sell "being in love." The whole spot will be backed by an insipid chorus chirping out, "Barbie and Ken, they've got a special world; Barbie and Ken. . ." (You get the idea.) Indulgent moms will storm toy counters all over America.

I phone an animator, Bob. He drives in from Malibu. Thirty miles. My office is located in a Spanish style courtyard next to a Chinese restaurant on Sunset Boulevard. Bob has a reputation for working even faster than me. He'll knock out the designs too. That evening! I explain what's needed then phone the client to assure them we'll have the sketches the following day. At ten that night I drive to Malibu to pick up Bob's drawings. Back in the office by eight the next a.m., I paste them onto a big presentation board then rush to Carson/Roberts to drop it off by nine. At eleven I'm back at the agency again for the big meeting.

The Mattel folks are already there. Three of them. One, younger, is primed, ready to see that we do right by Barbie. The other two, older, bored, are eager to get through this in time to dive into their lunchtime Martinis. The art director goes into his spiel. "First," he lies, "we worked on this concept."

He unfolds a presentation board with eight or nine birds and points to a group of four. Although these are the same birds animator Bob has drawn, this is not my presentation board. Between nine and eleven he's peeled all the birds off the one I'd prepared and pasted them on to two different boards. "But we didn't feel they'd quite sell Barbie and Ken's budding romance," he continues. Then, pointing to a group of three, he says, "And these felt a bit too cutesy, so we worked on these." Now he indicates the last group, while at the same time sizing up the reactions of the three execs. The younger guy is expectant, eager for the punch line. His companions yawn. (I suspect they're wise to his dog and pony show.) "But they were just a tiny bit too subtle," the AD goes on, smiling, "so we finally came up with these!" Now he unfolds a second board, featuring three more of Bob's outrageously Disneyesque bluebirds. "We're convinced they add just the right pinch of sex appeal," he concludes.

Mattel is sold. The AD has turned a frantic twelve hours into what sounds like a two-week slog. And the animation is done just as quickly, with Bob the animator injecting himself with coffee into the eye-reddening hours, and me shuttling to Malibu to grab his scenes and race them through ink and paint, camera and editing.

Barbie, of course, is thrilled. Girls are gaga over Barbie and Ken in love. And Barbie goes on and on, reaching new plateaus of stardom. By 2005 girls can get Barbie along with her clones, Tori or Simone, and can sing along with the dolls Karaoke style, just like on American Idol. Batteries not included.

But take heart, fellow citizens; not long ago, the Barbie Liberation Organization, taking advantage of similarities in the voice hardware of Teen Talk Barbie and the Talking Duke G.I. Joe action figure, absconded with several hundred of each and performed a change operation then replaced them on store shelves. Even today, somewhere in deepest Nebraska a small boy may rip open a Christmas gift and find his G.I. Joe blurting out an adenoidal, "Let's go shopping." His pig-tailed sister, happily squeezing her Teen Talk Barbie, might hear her growl, "Vengeance is mine."

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Reeling Through Hollywood traces the Hollywood career of Dan Bessie Learn more about working in Tinsel Town days at

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