The Great Leaders Series: Ruth Handler, Co-founder of Mattel
BY Amy Gunderson
She invented the Barbie Doll (and Ken too), and then reinvented the way national brands advertise their products.
CAREER WOMAN: Ruth Handler, executive of Mattel Toy company, posing with collection of Barbie dolls, 1961.
Best known as the inventor of the Barbie doll, Ruth Handler should perhaps be even more noted for her influence on the development of modern advertising and branding. As the co-founder of Mattel with her husband Elliot, Handler tapped into the power of television, and was one of the first companies to use the medium to advertise directly to children year round.
When Mattel bought a $500,000 annual sponsorship for the Mickey Mouse Club in 1955, toy advertisements were still relegated to the weeks leading up to Christmas. Mattel's ads for its "Mouse Guitar" -- part of the toy ukulele fad of the 1950s -- proved to be a huge hit. Handler continued to use television to not only build future brands, including Barbie, but also ensure that the Mattel name was engrained in the brain of every TV- watching kid in the country by running slogans like, "You Can Tell It's Mattel, It's Swell."
Handler, who was born in 1916, married her high school sweetheart Elliot and moved with him to southern California. She worked as a stenographer at Paramount Pictures while encouraging her husband's creative handiwork of plastic mirrors and bookends, among other things. When the couple started Mattel in 1945, they produced picture frames. But the company quickly expanded to manufacture toy furniture, toy pianos, music boxes, and ukuleles. Handler's idea for Barbie--the first doll with adult features that was aimed at kids--emerged from a combination of watching her own daughter, Barbara, play with dolls, and from seeing dolls marketed to adults in Europe.
At first, Barbie wasn't any easy sell to Mattel's male executives, who initially thought that the anatomically-advanced doll was too risqué for young girls. Those execs were soon proved wrong. Barbie debuted at the New York Toy Fair in 1959 and Mattel sold 351,000 dolls in the first year alone. The company went public in 1960.
Barbie was later joined by Ken (her "one and only boyfriend," according to Mattel corporate history) and friends of different ethnic backgrounds. She embarked on new careers like fashion designer, astronaut, and even American Airlines flight attendant. The different Barbie personalities were featured with a slew of outfits and accessories that needed to be purchased separately. Some women's groups spoke out against Barbie's unrealistic waist-to-bust measurements, but Handler looked at her creation in a different light: "Barbie always represented the fact that a woman has choices," she said.
Manufacturing went global under Handler's watch and she became president of Mattel in 1967. But her run as a toy entrepreneur wasn't untarnished. A series of bad investments in non-toy industries, including the Ringling Bros. Circus in the early 1970s, led to poor earnings and, eventually, an investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission. Handler and her husband resigned from Mattel in 1975 and she later pled no-contest to charges of preparing false financial statements. She paid a fine and performed community service.
Despite her record, Handler went on to found Ruthton Corp., a breast prosthesis manufacturer. The venture had a deep personal connection for Handler who underwent a radical mastectomy during her own cancer battle. Handler's innovations and advocacy helped galvanize the movement for the early detection of breast cancer.
Handler died in 2002 but her legacy in the Barbie brand continues. Despite a recent dip in sales, Mattel still sells more than $1 billion worth of Barbie dolls and assorted accessories every year. Lately, the company has pondered ways to reinvigorate the Barbie brand. Mattel clearly believes it is a name worth fighting for. Last year, it successfully pursued a $100 million lawsuit against the look-alike Bratz dolls. And in 2009, Handler's baby turned the ripe old age of 50, prompting a slew of retrospectives in newspapers and magazines, and on the morning news programs, proving that Barbie can still make headlines.