BARBIE BOOTS UP

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Barbie may not be everyone's favorite companion--detractors love to hate her plastic perfection--but the fashion doll with the impossible figure has long been the most popular girl at Mattel. The world's No. 1 toymaker, whose products range from Fisher-Price infant and preschool toys to Disney-licensed characters, gets more than one-third of its nearly $4 billion in sales from the 11 1/2-in.-tall mannequin. Now Barbie, who at age 37 has become the best-selling girls' brand ever, is poised to strut into, and perhaps change forever, the male-dominated world of multimedia software and video games.

This month, after almost a year of buildup, Mattel is rolling out a line of seven interactive products led by three Barbie programs. Analyst John Taylor of Arcadia Investment expects Barbie to be among the top software entertainment programs this Christmas. Unlike such shoot-'em-up, beat-'em-up boy toys as Doom and Mortal Kombat, the Barbie titles are notably pacific and based on creative play. "The demand will be many times higher than Mattel thinks it will be," predicts Gary Jacobson, a senior vice president at the brokerage Jefferies & Co., who has followed Mattel for a decade. "The orders [from retailers] are large."

There are few sure things in the $36 billion global toy business; indeed, previous interactive games aimed at girls have been largely a flop. Although the mission is child's play, creating a toy or game that sells is not: the process generally takes a couple of years and requires big up-front costs. Toy manufacturers pray for a product's sales to double after the launch of TV ads and for demand to exceed supply temporarily.

In the past year, the lack of hit products has hurt retailers like Toys "R" Us, because hot toys drive parents into stores, where they may then buy classic toys as well. This Christmas retailers are expecting big things from Barbie and Nintendo 64, as well as from licensed toys related to Space Jam, 101 Dalmatians, Star Wars and Toy Story.

The most hotly awaited Barbie title is Fashion Designer (suggested retail price: $39.99), produced by the Hollywood special-effects studio Digital Domain (Interview with the Vampire, Apollo 13). The product lets users create as many as 15,000 different outfits that Barbie models in a 3-D walk down a runway. The patterns are printed out on special computer-compatible fabric and then assembled without sewing for Barbie to wear. At a showing for investors, "30-year-old women were having a great time making doll clothes," says an amused analyst who was there. Also part of the rollout are a moviemaking kit called Barbie Storymaker ($29.99) and Barbie Print 'n Play ($29.99), which produces cards and stationery. For the boys, Mattel's new offering is a computer mouse in the guise of a Hot Wheels car, complete with flashing lights and revving engine.

For Barbie's corporate mom, Mattel president Jill Barad, 45, the line represents the first test of her stewardship of the company. In January, Barad will become one of just four women to head a Fortune 1000 company when she succeeds ceo John Amerman, who is retiring. It was Barad, a onetime cosmetics marketer and knowledgeable about the whims of fashion, who rehabilitated Barbie's image in the 1980s, recasting her into a hip toy and a global franchise for the company.

As Barbie's star rose, so did Barad's. She was named one of the world's 50 most beautiful people by PEOPLE magazine, and she's one of the 10 smartest women in America, according to Ladies Home Journal. Ironically, Barad never played with Barbie dolls as a child. "I was too old," she recalls. But she envisions launching Barbie into cyberspace and inspiring legions of girls to follow her there, as one of the keys to Mattel's growth.

Such moves are essential as Mattel, which holds a 16% share of the U.S. toy market, seeks to continue the expansion of its famed but aging brands. While the California company reported a healthy 10% gain in third-quarter profits, most of its toy lines are mature, and for them to grow, they must be constantly revitalized, particularly in the U.S. Rebecca Runkle, a Morgan Stanley analyst who has watched toymakers scramble in the digital age, calls the new CD-ROMs a strategic coup. "With the fantastic brand recognition Mattel enjoys, this is a tremendous opportunity to expand," she says. "No traditional toy company today can ignore computer technology."

Barad, the mother of two teenage boys, regards multimedia games as the gateway to computer literacy and views the mostly untapped girls' market with missionary zeal. "It's sad," she says, "that girls start out with an equal interest in computers, but then we lose them at six years old. My boys are online probably eight hours a day. But my goddaughters, and other girls with whom I am familiar, have never had software that is as intriguing to them as it has been for boys." Females account for about 20% of the $4.9 billion global market for games and related software.

That's a shame, say such experts as Patricia Greenfield, an author and psychology professor at UCLA. Greenfield notes that video games "provide socialization and training in computer literacy. If girls don't have that experience, they won't have the skills needed for computer use as adults. They will be behind the eight ball economically and socially."

But girls rarely seem to have either the chance or the inclination to get plugged in. Just ask Ralph Howell, a New Jersey pharmacologist, who got a Sega game player for his daughter Emily three years ago, when she was six. Emily loved the rollicking Sonic the Hedgehog but turned up her nose at a race-car program and one based on the hit flick Jurassic Park. "Anytime I brought home another game, she just wasn't interested," Howell says. He finally quit shopping for her.

Some educators dismiss as simplistic and overdone the notion that girls eagerly await such "feminine" software as Barbie CD-ROMs. With homework, soccer practice and Girl Scout meetings already on their calendars, many girls don't lack for activities. And when they do try their hand at video games, their tastes can run to Mortal Kombat as well as to Oregon Trail. That hardly shocks Marsha Kinder, a professor of critical studies at the University of Southern California School of Cinema-Television. "Those who are urgently trying to reach females end up reinforcing sexist stereotypes, such as 'Girls like cooperative games, not action,'" Kinder says.

Barad plans to let the sales charts answer the sociological questions. She reckons that 99% of all U.S. girls between the ages of three and 10 own at least one Barbie doll, and the average girl owns a total of eight. Moreover, some 3 million girls who own Barbies have access to home computers, so it's not hard to imagine them clamoring for the new CD-ROMs. Analyst Taylor predicts the company will sell 200,000 of the programs this holiday season and could meet its goal of 1 million units in the coming year. Just to make sure, Mattel is spending an estimated $2 million to advertise the software on TV shows. The theme: "Computers Are Cool for Girls."

Barad is exploring ways to create multimedia toys for other company brands, including Polly Pocket, Cabbage Patch and See 'N Say. "This is only the beginning," she says in a glass-walled office that sports towering early versions of Barbie and her plastic paramour Ken. Barad vows Mattel will be a leader in interactive playthings.

Rivals such as Girl Games and Her Interactive, two new developers of multimedia titles for girls, are cheering Barad on. "Mattel can do some great things to expand that market for all of us," says Mauricio Polack, director of sales and marketing for Her Interactive, which last year unveiled a CD-ROM called McKenzie & Co. that is based on high school life. "Mattel is riding on our coattails to a certain extent," Polack says, "and then we'll ride on Mattel's."

Also eyeing the latest Mattel products are such multimedia giants as Microsoft and Broderbund. Philips Media, a unit of the Dutch electronics behemoth, has already launched a disc fashioned after The Baby-Sitters Club, a popular book series aimed largely at girls.

Of course, companies have tried girls' software before. Sega used a task force of women game developers to bring out titles in the early 1990s. The team often put strong female characters in what were basically boys' games. The effort has since been shelved. But Barad says she feels "personally responsible" for opening the computer world to girls. "Equal tools mean equal opportunity," she says. "You can explore and create on the computer in boundless ways. I want girls to have those skills at their fingertips." And that wouldn't be bad for the grownups at Mattel either.