“Beautiful Trouble is essential reading for the socially engaged artist.”Ken Krafchek, Graduate Director, MFA in Community Arts, Maryland Institute College of Art
On Christmas day in 1993, kids were finding more than they bargained for under their trees: Mattel’s new talking Barbie dolls growled “Dead men tell no lies,” while Hasbro’s macho GI Joe’s chirped “I love to shop with you.”
Enter the Barbie Liberation Organization, a self-described group of “veterans against war toys” and “concerned parents” who claimed responsibility for switching the voice boxes on hundreds of the toys nationwide. A full week of news and talk radio ensued, sparking widespread discussion about gender stereotypes.
The action was a response to a very dumb PR move Mattel had made nearly a year earlier, when it released a new talking Barbie that said “Math is hard.” Outraged feminists thrashed them in the press, and behind closed doors a small group of folks began plotting revenge. What else could Barbie say? One participant in the informal brainstorm sessions — an octogenarian Hungarian holocaust survivor who went by the nickname “Gyongi” — didn’t care about Barbie: the problem for her was GI Joe. A quick trip to the toy store confirmed that GI Joe talked too, and a plot was hatched: all that was required to make these toys into gender-bending Trojan horses was a voice-box switcheroo. Armed with soldering irons, screwdrivers, epoxy and sweat, the Barbie Liberation Organization went to work.
The next step was to recruit other BLO members, who purchased the toys in different cities, and sent them in for surgery. Each toy was carefully removed from its packaging, “fixed,” and returned. “Shop droppers” then put them right back on the store shelves they came from (without getting a refund, so nobody could call it stealing).
But this wasn’t to be a simple spectacle, it was to be a media spectacle, so an elaborate press plan was hatched. Along with each repackaged toy they included a doctored instruction sheet, complete with the numbers of local and national press, and a voicemail number for the BLO. The idea was that kids would open their toys, parents would call the numbers, and the media would cover it.
The day before Christmas, the BLO sent out a press release claiming responsibility for the action. The hope was that on Christmas day, when the media started getting phone calls from real people who’d gotten the toys, they’d put two and two together.
In case even that didn’t do the trick, the BLO built additional layers of redundancy into the media plan. They recruited two kids — one in San Diego, California, and one in Albany, New York — who were willing to put on a little show for the news cameras, thereby “proving” that the action was really happening. Lastly, they kept a stash of extra dolls on hand and stood ready to scramble to the toy stores nearest to any media who called their voicemail. When the media called, the BLO located the nearest store to the caller, got there as fast as they could, and put an altered toy on the shelf. On at least one occasion, BLO members were still in the store when the journalist arrived. They watched him find the toy, test it, and triumphantly purchase it — proof-positive of the power and reach of the Barbie Liberation Organization.
The stunt worked because the altered toys were funny, surprising and revealing. There were cute kids involved, which helped make it more mediagenic, as did the name recognition of two American icons: Barbie and GI Joe. The event made a huge media splash and had everyone talking about what was wrong with teaching these stereotypes to our kids.
The surreptitious introduction of poetically enhanced products to store shelves is a sure-fire way of delivering subversive content to even the peskiest demographic. In the BLO’s case, the shop-dropping is just the foundation upon which a major media spectacle was built.
Do the media’s work for them. The BLO’s success relied not just on a “sticky” prank, but on thoughtfully crafted press releases, video news releases, and having people ready to be interviewed. It was an artful marriage of creative storytelling and do-it-yourself publicity.
Make your own myths: Exaggerate. Don’t be afraid to make it sound bigger than it is. There were only about fifty dolls that made it to store shelves in three states: but the BLO said 300 in fifty states. No problem. The next Christmas, when the media came knocking, the BLO had done “thousands more” with no effort whatsoever.
A video news release showing Barbie dolls with soldering irons operating on GI Joes had TV anchors giggling like kids in between segments. With smiles like that, even conservative commentators were embracing the content.