A 9-year-old girl holds two Monster High dolls during a Christmas toy premiere in June in London. The new line of dolls is challenging Barbie, who long has held the No. 1 spot on the list of top dolls.
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A 9-year-old girl holds two Monster High dolls during a Christmas toy premiere in June in London. The new line of dolls is challenging Barbie, who long has held the No. 1 spot on the list of top dolls.

Changes leave beloved Barbie reeling

By Mae Anderson

The Associated Press

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NEW YORK – As far as catfights go, this is a doozy.

Barbie, long the reigning queen in the doll world, suddenly has been thrust into the battle of her life.

But Barbie’s competitors look nothing like the blue-eyed, blond-haired, long-legged fashion icon. They also don’t have the same old standards of beauty as the aging diva either.

Monster High dolls, vampy teens patterned after the offspring of monsters such as Dracula and Frankenstein, have neon pink and green streaks in their hair. They wear platform heels and miniskirts with skulls on them. The dolls by names such as Draculaura and Ick Abbey Bominable are gaining on Barbie.

In the Maddux household in Portage, Wis., for instance, Olivia, 10, has been playing with Barbie for six or seven years. But she added Monster High dolls to the mix a year ago.

“I look at Olivia and some of her friends and see they’re growing out of Barbies,” said Olivia’s mom, Lisa Maddux, 42, a freelance writer.

That Barbie is losing her edge is no surprise. Since debuting in 1959 as the world’s first fashion doll, Barbie long has been a lightning rod for controversy and competitors.

To be sure, Barbie remains No. 1 in the doll market, and the Mattel franchise has an estimated $1.3 billion in annual sales. But Barbie’s sales have slipped for four straight quarters, even while the overall doll category has risen 6 percent so far this year, the NPD Group marketing service company reports.

Meanwhile, Monster High, which is also made by Mattel, has become the No. 2 doll brand in just three years, with more than $500 million in annual sales, said Gerrick Johnson of BMO Capital Markets, a financial services company.

Barbie also has had to contend with increasing criticism of her impossibly proportioned body. While the 54-year-old doll has over the years graduated from pin-up girl to a range of characters that include astronauts, engineers and princesses, detractors continue to dismiss the 111/2-inch doll’s frame as impossibly top-heavy and tiny-waisted.

Barbie’s measurements equate to about a 39-inch bust, 18-inch waist and 33-inch hips on a life-size woman. The average American woman, by comparison, is about a size 14.

Artist Nickolay Lamm recently posted pictures of what the doll would look like if it had the average measurements of a 19-year-old, revealing a much more meaty physique. The pictures were featured on Web sites from CNN to Time and renewed controversy over the doll’s effect on girls’ body image.

Monster High dolls, on the other hand, although still pretty slim, have a punk rock look that’s intended to send the message that being different is OK.

Monster High also is aimed at slightly older children – adding to their appeal – while Barbie’s increasingly young audience is hurting sales. After all, no child wants to play with anything seen as a baby toy.

Barbie has been marketed to children that are between age 3 and 9, but the range has shrunk to around 3 to 6 over the past 15 years or so, said Jim Silver, editor-in-chief of TimeToPlayMag.com. This happened because older children likely are gravitating toward electronic devices or dolls such as Monster High, which are aimed at kids 6 to 13.

It’s a trickle-down effect: The same reason why 5-year-olds who belted out “The Wheels on the Bus,” 25 years ago today would be more interested in pop songs by the boy band One Direction, he said.

“Kids are growing up much faster younger,” Silver said. “A 6-year-old is looking for something a little edgier. That’s the reason why Monster High has had so much success.”

Kim Blake’s daughter Sarah, 7, used to be a Barbie fan, but she’s moved beyond that. Sarah is getting ready to donate her 3-foot tall Barbie dream house and about half of her 20 Barbie dolls to charity.

Now, she’s more into playing outside or taking tae kwon do martial arts classes and less into dolls in general. That’s a switch from her mother, 35, who played with Barbie dolls until she was 13.

“Her girlfriends don’t play with them any more either,” said Blake, a store manager in Renton, Wash. “They’ve actually said the word ‘babyish’ talking about them.”

The last time Barbie wasn’t feeling the love was about 12 years ago when, after years of little competition, pouty-lipped Bratz dolls became wildly successful. They sent squeaky clean Barbie into a sales spiral.

Bratz dolls were edgy. They wore low-rise jeans, had heavy makeup and exposed navels. They also were sultrier than Barbies. But the Bratz fad faded in 2005, and Barbie slowly regained sales ground.

The same might happen with Monster High dolls. Industry experts say it will take a lot to dethrone the Barbie.

“It’s still one of the strongest brands in industry,” said Sean McGowan, a toy analyst with the financial firm Needham & Co.

The success of Monster High and its other doll brands might be causing some of Barbie’s sales dip, Mattel CEO Bryan Stockton said in a recent call to investors.

In general, “hot toys” have a cyclical nature, usually with a five-year time span, said Johnson of BMO Capital.

“It happens with everything. Name a toy, and it’s had its ups and downs,” Johnson said. “At some point the day comes when a kid says, ‘Nah, I’m tired of this.’”

That day isn’t completely here for Olivia Maddux yet. Her mom, Lisa, believes the girl’s new love affair with the Monster High dolls might have in fact extended the life of Barbie dolls.

“I think the addition of Monster High dolls, aimed at a little different demographic, kept Barbies alive in our place, since she plays with them together,” she said.

That might be true. In Olivia’s world, Barbie and Monster High peacefully coexist – well, sort of.

“The Monster High dolls are like the Barbie’s servants,” Olivia said.