Friday, August 31, 2007

Chief Barbie Girl Needs Some Schooling in "Advertising" Terms and Definitions

A few days ago the Boston Globe ran a story on Be-Bratz and, among others, commenting on the recent success of branded virtual worlds for kids. Although the article features some of critiques of the Be-Bratz site (via an interview with Peggy Meszaros, director of the Center for Information Technology Impacts on Children, Youth, and Families at Virginia Tech University), its coverage of BarbieGirls reads more like a promo piece. Specifically, the interview with Rosie O'Neill, "chief Barbie Girl" at Mattel, paints a highly celebratory and shockingly inaccurate picture of the site and its contents. For example:
O'Neill...said the online service is designed to expand and enhance the experience of playing with Barbie dolls. Every feature of the online Barbie Girl can be customized, including eye and skin color, hair style, and the design and color of shoes, jewelry, and clothing. "On other sites you're simply picking a fashion to wear, O'Neill said. "On Barbie Girls, you design it."

Anyone who has visited the site knows very well that the "design features" are not at all different from the customizing features found on other sites of this kind -- the only potential difference (and again this is found on many other sites) is that you can choose both clothing items AND colours from a standardized, set palette. So, players have a choice of bottoms, from say a dozen or so pants and skirts, and a choice of tops, from less than a dozen options, along with shoes and some accessories. Furthermore they can pick the colours -- not quite a design feature if you ask me. The last time I checked, putting together an outfit at a store (virtual or otherwise) and picking out which colours I preferred from those available is pretty much exactly what "picking a fashion to wear" means...styling, perhaps, but certainly not fashion design. But what really got to me was this follow-up quote about in-game ads and marketing on the site:
O'Neill rejects the idea that Barbie Girls is little more than a marketing tool. "In the site we don't actually show any other products," she said. "There's no advertisement on the site."

Shocking! One of the only ways to earn "B Bucks" is to watch trailers for Barbie DVDs -- Barbie and the Twelve Dancing Princesses, Barbie and the Magic of Pegasus, etc. In every set of guidelines I've read, trailers count as ads, and I really don't see how this is any different. Since when are DVDs for Barbie movies not "products"? Furthermore, the site heavily promotes the accompanying BarbieGirl mp3 player -- without it, players are extremely limited in terms of what they can do and (most importantly, since it's probably THE main activity on the site) "buy". Since when is focusing primarily on one particular product -- in this case the BarbieGirl mp3 player -- synonymous with "no advertisement"...repeatedly during gameplay, the mp3-less player is confronted with a pop-up window informing them that the item or action is only available with the mp3. From this window, three clicks of a mouse bring the player to an actual online store where they can buy the mp3 itself..that's hardly "no advertisement."

Meszaros, who is quoted later on in regards to Be-Bratz makes an important point that the sites themselves are "pure consumerism" -- creating a branded environment where every act, image and event provided by the site are either explicitly or implicitly promotional in nature (of course, players can add new elements or subvert the structure, but the promotional features remain front and centre in the site/game design). The BarbieGirls site is an exercise in consumer values, where the only thing you can do easily is shop. Chatting -- the only other primary activity -- is made extremely difficult as a result of the "safety" restrictions a large number of words and/or word combinations, including words like "difficult", any numbers, punctuation, etc. Most of the time, all there is to do is shop -- for your avatar, for your room, for your pet -- and then integrate your purchases into your room decor or wardrobe. The main products on offer are clothes, furniture, pet supplies -- which, by the way, are all common accoutrement in Barbie World, featured in the accessories and booster packs that you can buy for Barbie dolls, the Dream House and now the BarbieGirl mp3. The overall promotional aspect of BarbieGirls and other sites of this type should not be underestimated. I think that immersive advertising and branded MMOGs can best be understood in terms of Buckingham and Sefton-Green's concept of a "pedagogy" of consumerism.


Nick said...

Hi Sara,

I've just come across your blog, I think it's great and your doing some amazing research. Adding you to my blogroll ;)

Rosa said...

great analysis! btw: my 6 y/o daughter now hates the site coz they've changed the chatting-feature to only allow predefined conversations...