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‘Mad Men’ Dolls in a Barbie World, but the Cocktails Must Stay Behind

Stuart Elliott|The New York Times

After three seasons, “Mad Men,” the television series about advertising in the 1960s, has attained a level of popular-culture cachet. There have been magazine cover articles, calendars and an episode of “The Oprah Winfrey Show” all devoted to it, spoofs on “The Simpsons” and “Saturday Night Live,” and even a “Mad Men” category on “Jeopardy.”

Soon, the show will enter a realm of the pop-culture pantheon that its creator, Matthew Weiner, says has surprised even him: Mattel plans to bring out versions of Barbie and Ken styled after four “Mad Men” characters.

The dolls are part of a premium-price collectors’ series for adults that Mattel calls the Barbie Fashion Model Collection. Although there have been Barbies and Kens based on other TV series, among them “I Love Lucy” and “The X-Files,” the dolls will be the first licensed line for that collection, Mattel says, with a suggested retail price of $74.95 each.

The Barbie and Ken versions of the “Mad Men” characters are, from left, Joan Holloway, Roger Sterling, Don Draper and Betty Draper.
Source: Mattel

Mattel is licensing rights to the characters from Lionsgate, the studio that produces “Mad Men” for the AMC cable channel. There will be 7,000 to 10,000 copies of each doll, to be sold in specialty stores and on two Web sites, amctv.com and barbiecollector.com.

The characters to become dolls are Don Draper, the show’s leading man; his wife, Betty; his colleague at the Sterling Cooper agency, Roger Sterling; and Joan Holloway, the agency’s office manager who was Roger’s mistress.

That two dolls represent a relationship outside wedlock, and Don Draper’s propensity for adultery, may be firsts for the Barbie world since the brand’s introduction five decades ago. But for the sake of the Barbie image, her immersion in the “Mad Men” era will go only so far: The dolls come with period accessories like hats, overcoats, pearls and padded undergarments, but no cigarettes, ashtrays, martini glasses or cocktail shakers.

“The dolls, we feel, do a great job of embodying the series,” said Stephanie Cota, senior vice president for Barbie marketing at Mattel in El Segundo, Calif. “Certain things are appropriate, and certain things aren’t.”

The dolls are emblematic of the interplay between entertainment and marketing, which is intensifying as consumers become harder to reach through traditional means like commercials.

“The overall revenue isn’t the issue in a licensing deal like this,” said Ira Mayer, publisher of The Licensing Letter, a newsletter for the licensing industry owned by EPM Communications. Rather, he said, the goal is the additional exposure, to help build “longevity” for the “Mad Men” brand.

“It’s certainly great exposure,” he added, “for both sides.”

The pairing of Barbie and “Mad Men” is more interesting than the typical licensing agreement because of their shared history. Barbie was introduced in March 1959, and the first episode of “Mad Men” is set in March 1960.

“ ‘Mad Men’ represents so beautifully the universe that created Barbie,” said Robert Thompson, professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University, because the series is about the selling of the American consumer society.

The personification of Betty Draper as Barbie is particularly resonant, Mr. Thompson said, because she represents “the wife who lives in her dream house whose soul is eaten away.”

“I have this fantasy of an 8-year-old getting a set” of the dolls, he added, “and saying: ‘Mom, can Chelsea come over? We want to play “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit.” I’m going to be the organization man, and she’s going to be the soulless drone.’ ”

Such considerations were, of course, not driving the executives of Mattel and Lionsgate to make the deal. Rather, the arrival of the dolls, scheduled for July, will help promote the fourth season of “Mad Men,” which is to begin that month on AMC.

And postcards bearing sketches of the dolls by the Barbie designer Robert Best, which were used to produce the final versions, will be included in the DVD and Blu-ray boxed sets of the third season, scheduled for release on March 23.

“Mad Men” is “not an easy show to promote,” said Kevin Beggs, president for television programming and production at Lionsgate in Santa Monica, Calif. “It’s not ‘Cougar Town’ or ‘Desperate Housewives,’ where you get it in one line.”

As a result, Mr. Beggs said, Lionsgate and AMC are seeking nontraditional methods to stimulate viewership. Other such efforts include suits inspired by the series sold at Brooks Brothers and a promotion that advertised the show in windows of Banana Republic stores.

As for fears that “Mad Men” could be devalued by too much kitschy merchandise, Lionsgate “is fairly restrained,” Mr. Beggs said, promising that “no sharks will be jumped” — the TV term for a series that self-destructs through overreaching.

Charlie Collier, president and general manager at AMC in New York, part of Cablevision Systems, said the goal was to “do things in a way that is appropriate for ‘Mad Men,’ high quality and sophisticated.” Any idea must survive the scrutiny of Mr. Weiner, he added, who in addition to creating the series is also executive producer and head writer.

Mr. Weiner acknowledged saying no to “a lot of” bad proposals for licensed products because, he said, he does not “want the show to be exploited.”

The dolls are “a realization of a fantasy, in a weird way,” Mr. Weiner said, because “on some level it’s such a measure of success to see your characters embodied by Barbie.”

“Anybody who likes the show for its attention to detail will get that from the dolls,” he added, which earned approval from him; Janie Bryant, the costume designer for “Mad Men”; and Scott Hornbacher, an executive producer.

As an example of their scrutiny, Mr. Weiner said he told Mattel that the sideburns on the Don Draper doll needed “to be higher” and the haircut needed “to be tighter.”

The deal also provided Mr. Weiner with a moment evocative of the Rosebud revelation in “Citizen Kane.”

“I grew up with two older sisters and lots of Barbies in the house,” he recalled, including “a doll named Midge,” a pal of Barbie’s. In retrospect, he said, she may have been the inspiration for Midge Daniels, a mistress of Don Draper’s in Season One.

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