Thursday, February 2, 2012

I'm A Barbie Girl

It’s no secret that pop music is big business, and a top 10 hit will normally rake in millions of dollars for the artists and record company concerned.

Because of these big dollars, legal issues sometimes arise that are fought out vigorously in court, with two famous examples involving allegations of plagiarism.

In the 1970’s a prolonged legal battle was fought over ex Beatle George Harrison’s song “My Sweet Lord” when it was alleged that this had been copied from the Chiffon’s 1963 hit “He’ So Fine”. 

George Harrison in 1987 (Image from Wikipedia Commons - click to enlarge)

In 2009, it was alleged that part of the famous Australian hit “Land Down Under” had been taken from the 1930’s children’s song “Kookaburra”, and this too resulted in lengthy legal proceedings.

But probably the strangest legal case ever to arise from a pop tune was not fought over plagiarism but over a far more esoteric matter that those in the marketing world call “branding”. And it all came about like this.

With little doubt, the most successful toy doll ever made is the celebrated “Barbie Doll”, first launched by the American company Mattel, back in 1959. Through many years of clever marketing, the Barbie brand became immensely popular around the world, with a wide variety of Barbies made available together with a large range of clothes and accessories. Barbie also had a male companion called Ken and the entire arrangement was marketed as a sparkling and wholesome experience for young girls, typically in the age group from 3 to 12.

A range of Mattel's iconic Barbie Dolls - probably the most commercially successful dolls ever. (Image from Wikipedia Commons - click to enlarge)

And the enormous success of the Barbie brand also attracted attention in other ways. In 1997, the Norwegian dance music group “Aqua”, working for MCA Records, put together a novelty song, “I’m a Barbie Girl”, which was a fun parody of a day in the life of Barbie and Ken. Accompanied by a catchy tune, music video and loaded up with raunchy double entendre lyrics, the song, against all expectations, rocketed up the charts, becoming a number 1 hit for three weeks in a row in both the UK and Australia. It also reached an unprecedented number 7 in the US Billboard Hot 100, thereby joining the big league of pop music and ultimately selling more than 8 million copies.

Aqua's "Barbie Girl" cover. (Image from Wikipedia Commons - click to enlarge)

Nearly everyone was delighted but there was one major exception. Barbie’s maker Mattel was far from amused with what it claimed were undesirable images of Barbie and Ken that were promoted by the song and video clip.

Mattel alleged that the song portrayed Barbie as a sex object (referred to as “a blond bimbo girl” in the song) and that her image was tarnished by the inferences contained. These circumstances, Mattel believed, undermined the Barbie brand and devalued her commercial value. They likened MCA Records to a bank robber, piggybacking on Barbie’s fame to sell their record.

They filed a lawsuit against MCA, with the record company then countersuing for defamation over the “bank robber” inference.

The two cashed - up corporate heavyweights, both in a fighting mood and flexing plenty of legal muscle, commenced to slug it out through the US Court system. After lengthy proceedings Mattel’s claim was dismissed but an appeal was then launched in the US Supreme Court. In 2002, Judge Alex Kozinsky, perhaps showing signs of exasperation, again dismissed Mattel’s suit together with MCA’s countersuit for defamation, and at the same time advised both groups to “chill out”.

The whole fabulously expensive legal battle then ground down into a sort of bloodstained draw, ending what surely must be the only time a toymaker has sued a record company.  This strange case is a unique example of the law working in mysterious ways.

Aqua’s famous video clip of “I’m a Barbie Girl” can be seen here.

And in a strange twist to the tale, the following clip is a television advertisement for Fashionista Barbie, presumably approved by Mattel. The jingle seems strangely reminiscent of Aqua’s original tune that precipitated all the legal drama! But somehow I don't think anyone will sue.


  1. There is (was) a pretty good film thst used Barbie and Ken dolls to tell the poignant story of the singer Karen Carpenter. It was titled "Superstar," directed by Todd Haynes. One reason film was withdrawn was a copyright issue with Richard Carpenter, but even though Wikipedia doesn't mention it, I remember at the time that Mattel had something to say about it as well. Too bad. It was very well done film.

  2. HI Kat;

    Very interesting - didn't know about that!
    The legend of Barbie and Ken continues to grow.

  3. nice idea.. thanks for sharing.