'Eat Lead!': When Activists Hacked Talking Barbie

Meester X, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
Meester X, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

With his familiar green fatigues and grenade clipped to his chest, G.I. Joe platoon leader Duke appeared carved from granite, not plastic. The 12-inch action figure was part of Hasbro’s Hall of Fame series, a premium-format figure released in 1993. Press his chest and the military specialist’s voice box would be activated, allowing Duke to shout a series of commands or threats.

But for a number of boys who unwrapped him on Christmas Day 1993, Duke appeared to be in no mood for conflict. When pressed to speak, he would instead exclaim, “Let’s go shopping!”

At the same time, parents who had gifted their children Mattel’s Teen Talk Barbie—which was also equipped with a voice chip—were equally confused. Instead of talking about clothes or Corvettes, the Barbies sounded like they had been gargling gravel. “Eat lead, Cobra!” shouted one. “Vengeance is mine!”

Families were not amused: The dolls weren't cheap—each had a $40 to $50 price tag. After examining the box for any signs of tampering, some parents came across a small leaflet that helped explain the toys’ out-of-character speeches. A group calling themselves the Barbie Liberation Organization was taking responsibility for the switch. The goal of their stunt was to reframe the conversation over gender roles in America.

 
 

Since she first hit shelves in 1959, Barbie has transcended her boxed-in identity as mere toy store inventory to become an avatar for girls looking for a role model. (At one point, the doll received 20,000 fan letters a week.) The size of her waist, her job skills, her Malibu beach house—all of it has been commandeered by social anthropologists looking to see whether her influence is enriching young girls' lives or offering dispiriting, stereotyped notions of femininity.

That debate took a turn for the worse in 1992, when Mattel released a teenaged variation of the doll that exclaimed “math class is tough!” Women’s groups were outraged, believing that Barbie was falling victim to harmful tropes that put a ceiling on both her intellect and that of her pre-teen consumers.

Though the phrase was just one of 270 the doll could utter at random—others included “I love school, don’t you?”—it received the brunt of media attention, including demands to recall the dolls. (Mattel apologized, but did not pull the dolls off shelves.)

The debate over whether Barbie had social responsibilities caught the attention of Igor Vamos, a student of visual arts at the University of California, San Diego. Vamos was intrigued by the idea of “cultural jamming,” a kind of analog hacking that upended conventional ideas to create controversy. If Barbie taught passivity and sexism with her complaints of math being hard, then perhaps she should be given a different script.

Vamos bought several dozen Teen Talk Barbies and Talking Duke figures from toy stores in California and New York. He and several other “operatives” dismantled the toys, performing a crude surgery that allowed them to switch the voice boxes buried in their bodies. Volunteers would use a knife to cut into the dolls' plastic skin, then modify the transistor of the Joe’s voice chip so it would fit into Barbie’s comparatively slimmer torso.

A screenshot of a G.I. Joe Talking Duke figure

21solo, YouTube

After repackaging the dolls, the team “shop-dropped,” surreptitiously restocking them on toy shelves in Albany, San Diego, and Walnut Creek, California. Each box had a piece of paper encouraging disgruntled parents to reach out to the media after discovering the toys weren’t gender-conforming. To speed things along, they also told friends to buy the dolls and make the calls. Then they waited.

Within weeks, adults confused by their child’s new toys did exactly what the B.L.O. suggested, telling local news affiliates that their Barbie was shouting attack commands and informing kids that “dead men tell no lies.” Duke, meanwhile, rebuffed war strategy, preferring to “plan our dream wedding.”

The ensuing media coverage is exactly what Vamos was hoping for. Calling the toys' gender roles “stone-aged,” the B.L.O. claimed responsibility, stayed anonymous, and hoped it would cause consumers to rethink the propagation of violence by male toys and the relatively vacuous ambitions of Barbie.

"Obviously, our goal is to get media attention,” a B.L.O. spokesperson told The New York Times. “We are trying to make a statement about the way toys can encourage negative behavior in children, particularly given rising acts of violence and sexism."

Vamos even supervised production of a video that used Barbie to spell out their mission. “They build us in a way that perpetuates gender-based stereotypes,” the toy said. “Those stereotypes have a negative effect on children’s development.”

 
 

While most considered the act harmless—the toys could, after all, be exchanged for an unadulterated version—not everyone believed the B.L.O.’s mission played fair. "I've got a very strong negative feeling about terrorist acts against children, no matter how noble the motives," Joanne Oppenheim, a toy industry advocate, told the Times. “It's a cheap shot, and it's unfair to the kids.” Others protested the general idea of product tampering.

Mattel and Hasbro were less rattled. Wayne Charness, then-vice president of Hasbro, called it “kind of ridiculous,” while Mattel refrained from commenting. Though the B.L.O. claimed to have tampered with hundreds of toys in 43 different states, the truth was that Vamos and his team had performed surgery on roughly 120 toys. But the media perpetuated the story, making it seem as though the stunt was pervasive.

The story died down after the holidays. The tampered toys were either returned or bought and discarded. Vamos kept his role in the stunt largely under wraps until years later, when he became a part of The Yes Men, a social disruption performance group, under the alias Mike Bonanno. Vamos is now a professor of media arts at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York.

Was the stunt effective? Anecdotally, maybe. Media outlets like Ohio's Akron Beacon Journal profiled kids and parents who had been affected by the switch, including 7-year-old Zach, the recipient of a Barbie-possessed Duke. Asked if he wanted to return the toy, Zach said no: “He’s teaching me not to fight.”

Were kids really influenced by the toys to rethink gender portrayals, or were they yet another example of the B.L.O. manipulating the media by using an undercover operative to articulate their message? If Barbie knows, she isn't talking. 

Antisocial Media: The Rise and Fall of Friendster

iStock
iStock

When software engineer Jonathan Abrams arrived in Silicon Valley in 1996, the internet was known for three things: vast amounts of information, pornography, and anonymity. If users weren't investigating the first two, they were exploiting the third to argue about movies or politics, their unfiltered opinions unencumbered by concerns over embarrassment. People were known only by their screen handles.

Abrams, who came to California to program for the web browser Netscape, had an idea. What if people could use their real names, faces, and locations online? Instead of having an avatar, they'd simply upload their existing personality in the form of photos, profiles, and interests. They could socialize with others in a transparent fashion, mingling within their existing circles to find new friends or even dates. Strangers would be introduced through a mutual contact. If executed properly, the network would have real-world implications on relationships, something the internet rarely facilitated at that time.

Abrams called his concept Friendster. Launched in March 2003, it quickly grew to host millions of users. Google began talks of a lucrative buyout. Abrams showed up on Jimmy Kimmel Live, anticipating the dot-com-engineer-as-rock-star template. His investors believed Friendster could generate billions.

Instead, Friendster's momentum stalled. Myspace became the dominant social platform, with Facebook quickly gaining ground. Abrams, who once appeared poised to collect a fortune from his creation, watched as copycat sites poached his user base and his influence waned. What should've been a case study of internet success became one of the highest profile casualties of the web's unrestricted growth. It became too big not to fail.

 

Many businesses rely on a creation myth, the idea that a single inciting incident provides the spark of inspiration that turns a company from a small concern into a revenue-generating powerhouse. For publicity purposes, these stories are just that—fictions devised to excite the press and charm consumers. Pierre Omidyar, who programmed AuctionWeb and later renamed it eBay, was said to have conceived of the project to help his wife, Pamela, find Pez dispensers for her collection. In fact, there were no Pez dispensers. It was a fable concocted by an eBay marketing employee who wanted to romanticize the site's origins.

In early press coverage of Friendster, there was little mention of Abrams looking to monetize the burgeoning opportunities available online. Instead, he was portrayed as a single man with a recently broken heart who wanted to make dating easier. Abrams later said there was no truth to this origin story, though he did derive inspiration from Match.com, a successful dating site launched in 1995. Abrams's idea was to develop something like Match.com, only with the ability to meet people through friends. Instead of messaging someone out of the blue, you could connect via a social referral.

Human-shaped icons represent the concept of social networking
iStock

Following stints at Netscape and an aggregation site called HotLinks, Abrams wrote and developed Friendster for a spring 2003 launch. He sent invites to 20 friends and family members in the hopes interest would multiply. It did, and quickly. By June, Friendster had 835,000 users. By fall, there were 3 million. Facebook's launch in February 2004 was months away, and so low-key that Abrams met with Mark Zuckerberg to see if he'd consider selling. If an internet user wanted to socialize in a transparent manner, Friendster was the go-to destination.

When users signed up for the site, they were only allowed to message people who were within six degrees of separation or less. To help endorse unfamiliar faces, Friendster also permitted users to leave "testimonials" on profiles that could extol a person's virtues and possibly persuade a connection to meet up in the real world.

Naturally, not all mutual connections were necessarily good friends: They might have been acquaintances at best, and the resulting casual atmosphere was more of a precursor to Tinder than Facebook. One user told New York Magazine that Friendster was less a singles mixer and more "six degrees of how I got Chlamydia."

Still, it worked. The site's immediate success did not go unnoticed by venture capitalists, who had been circling popular platforms—America Online, Yahoo!, and, later, YouTube—and injecting start-ups with millions in operating funds. At the time, the promise of savvy business minds flipping URLs for hundreds of millions or even billions was a tangible concept, and one that Abrams kept in mind as he fielded an offer from Google in 2003 to buy Friendster for $30 million. It would be a windfall.

Abrams declined.

 

Investors—including future PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel and Google investor K. Ram Shriram—advised Abrams that there was too much money to leave on the table in return for short-term gain. Abrams opted to accept $13 million toward building out the site. He sat on the board of directors and watched as backers began to strategize the best path forward.

Quickly, Abrams noticed a paradigm shift taking place. As a programmer, Abrams solved problems, and Friendster was facing a big one. Buoyed by press attention (including the Kimmel appearance where Abrams handed out condoms to audience members, presumably in anticipation of all the relationships Friendster could help facilitate), the site was slowing down, unable to absorb all of the incoming traffic. Servers struggled to generate customized networks for each user, all of which were dependent on who they were already connected to. A page sometimes took 40 seconds to load.

The investors considered lag time a mundane concern. Adding new features was even less attractive, as that might slow the pages down further. They wanted to focus on partnerships and on positioning Friendster as a behemoth that could attract a nine- or 10-figure purchase price. This is what venture capitalists did, scooping up 10 or 20 opportunities and hoping a handful might explode into something enormous.

But for business owners and entrepreneurs like Abrams, they didn’t have a portfolio to deal with. They were concerned only with their creation. Its failure was all-encompassing; there weren't 19 other venues to turn to if things didn't work out.

Two word balloons represent the concept of social networking
iStock

Abrams saw the need for a site reconfiguration. The board was indifferent. Eventually he was removed and assigned a role as chairman, an empty title that was taken away from him in 2005. As the board squabbled over macro issues, Abrams watched as micro issues—specifically, the site itself—deteriorated. Frustrated with wait times, users began migrating to Myspace, which offered more customizable features and let voyeurs browse profiles without "friending" others. Myspace attracted 22.1 million unique users monthly in 2005. Friendster was getting just 1.1 million.

 

By 2006, Friendster was mired in software kinks and something less tangible: a loss of cachet among users who were gravitating toward other social platforms. Though Abrams was out, investors continued to pour money into Friendster in the hopes that they could recoup costs. In 2009, they sold to MOL Global for $40 million, which would later convert the site into a social gaming destination. But it was too late. Though the site still had an immense number of users—115 million, with 75 million coming from Asia—they were passive, barely interacting with other users. By 2011, user data—photos, profiles, messages—was being purged.

In ignoring the quality of the end-user experience, the decision-makers at Friendster had effectively buried the promise of Abrams's concept. They sold off his patents to Facebook in 2010 for $40 million. Coupled with the MOL sale, it may have been a tidy sum, but one that paled in comparison to Friendster's potential. A 2006 article in The New York Times reported with some degree of morbid fascination that if Abrams had accepted the Google offer of $30 million in 2003 in the form of stock, it would've quickly been worth $1 billion.

In the years since, Abrams has tinkered with other sites—including an evite platform called Socialzr and a news monitoring app called Nuzzel, which is still in operation—and tends to Founders Den, a club and work space in San Francisco. He's normally reticent to discuss Friendster, believing there's little point in dwelling on a missed opportunity.

The site did, ultimately, became a case study for Harvard Business School—though perhaps not in the way investors had intended. Friendster was taught as a cautionary tale, an example that not every good idea will find its way to success.

When WWF Wrestling Figures Ruled the '80s

Zorro Mendez, YouTube
Zorro Mendez, YouTube

When the action figure market heated up in the 1980s, a number of companies were delivering very positive earnings reports to shareholders. Mattel made $350 million marketing its He-Man line in 1984 alone; Hasbro's G.I. Joe regularly topped holiday wish lists curated by newspapers. So did their Transformers, which earned $300 million in 1985.

Many of the more successful figures were either based on or supported by animated shows that effectively acted as advertising for their licensed merchandise. With this template established, it's not difficult to see why toymaker LJN saw opportunity in partnering with the World Wrestling Federation (WWF), a larger-than-life parade of grapplers that clashed in weekly televised matches. The end result—a large variety of 8-inch, heavy-duty rubber figures that could withstand aggressive imaginary play—became one of the most successful toys lines of the 1980s.

A screen capture of a Hillbilly Jim LJN wrestling action figure
John Wild, YouTube

Founded in 1970 by Jack Friedman, LJN had experienced some dizzying highs and lows in the mercurial world of toymaking. In 1982, the company acquired the license to produce items based on E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. With other potential licensees dubious about the film's potential, LJN was able to get the rights for a relatively paltry $35,000. The movie, of course, was a massive hit and the products reaped millions of dollars in revenue. Friedman took to driving around New York with a vanity license plate that read, "Thanx ET."

Two years later, LJN was less successful when the company launched a toy line based on 1984's Dune, David Lynch's big-budget, widely ignored feature film adaptation of Frank Herbert's sci-fi novel. LJN paid $2 million for the rights and watched as kids passed up Kyle MacLachlan and sand worm toys in favor of more Star Wars items.

"We all went to Mexico City to meet with [Dune producer] Dino De Laurentiis and got food poisoning," Karyn Weiss, who worked at LJN in product development at the time, tells Mental Floss. "The president of Toys 'R' Us was there. He got sick, too."

Fortunately, LJN had other prospects. As Dune was sinking, the WWF was making a rapid move into popular culture. When MTV began airing their matches, the WWF benefited from the mainstream appeal of guest stars like Mr. T and Cyndi Lauper. The wrestling league and its best-known performer, Hulk Hogan, were something like a touring superhero troupe. Vince McMahon, who ran the organization, had successfully taken the sport from its roots as a regional attraction into something that had national recognition. In addition to a weekly television series, McMahon would eventually profit from tie-in products like shirts and ice cream bars. VHS cassettes of the inaugural WrestleMania and its 1986 sequel would sell more than 1 million units each. Action figures seemed like an obvious next step.

"Wrestling was getting hot and people were talking about it," Weiss says. A meeting between LJN executives and McMahon went well, and the two companies began working on a line of figures and accessories.

According to the Fully Poseable Wrestling Figure Podcast interview with an LJN sculptor, what became the familiar 8-inch, rubber-molded aesthetic of the WWF line happened by accident. LJN planned on making the figures closer in size to the 3.75-inch height typical of most action figures of the era. They sent McMahon the larger prototypes for approval. When he saw their proportions, he figured it was more in line with his mammoth wrestlers and insisted the toys remain that size.

A photo of a Hulk Hogan LJN wrestling action figure
Grant Baciocco, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

While Hogan was the clear star of McMahon's roster and was likely going to remain on top for the foreseeable future, LJN relied on the WWF to tell them which wrestlers could be expected to maintain their popularity over the time it would take to get the figures into production. "We met with McMahon every six months and he'd tell us which wrestlers he was going to make popular," Weiss says. "Those are the ones we'd go into production with each year. He'd say, 'Hogan's going to keep the belt, Roddy Piper's going to be big.'"

The first wave of nine figures released in spring 1984 featured Hogan wearing his WWF world title belt, Piper, André the Giant, Big John Studd, Hillbilly Jim, The Iron Sheik, Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka, Junkyard Dog, and Nikolai Volkoff. (Notably absent was Sergeant Slaughter, an anvil-chinned military recruit who allegedly upset McMahon when he signed his own separate toy deal with Hasbro to appear in their G.I. Joe line.)

Once or twice a year, Weiss and other LJN employees would congregate at a production studio in New Rochelle, New York, to shoot commercials with the wrestlers. “André was bigger than life,” Weiss says. “They were all very lovely. We talked mostly about how they got into the wrestling business.” LJN also made sure the wrestlers made appearances at the annual Toy Fair in New York.

Unlike He-Man and G.I. Joe, who could bend at the joints and were made of lightweight plastic, the WWF figures were solid molded rubber. As a projectile launched at a sibling’s head, they hurt. But they were also tough enough to sustain themselves through cage matches, battle royales, and other clashes. Some figures based on massive wrestlers like King Kong Bundy were essentially blobs of heavy rubber that would have increased shipping costs. “They came in on boats from Hong Kong,” Weiss says.

By December 1985, LJN had sold 4 to 5 million of the figures, which retailed for $6 to $10 apiece. Second-quarter earnings for the company ballooned from $8.3 million in 1985 to $55.7 million in 1986, erasing the bad taste left over from the Dune deal and helping make LJN a major player in the action figure aisles, with some additional help from their Thundercats line.

Kid-sized wrestling belts, exercise kits, tag team sets, thumb wrestlers, and other products followed. Roughly 1.4 million wrestling rings—which were later recalled in 1991 due to having pointed posts that could impale children—were sold. Bendies were smaller, posable versions of the larger figures; LJN also made a 16-inch Hogan doll that had a rip-away shirt. And it wasn’t just McMahon who enjoyed the profits. In a 1986 interview with United Press International, “Macho Man” Randy Savage estimated a third of his income came from merchandising revenue.

The line continued through 1989, at which point LJN decided to make a move into the burgeoning video game industry and passed on renewing their license with the WWF. It would eventually go through a succession of licensees including Hasbro, JAKKS Pacific (which was owned by Jack Friedman), and Mattel, where it currently resides. Though the newer toys have multiple points of articulation for better simulated grappling, kids who grew up with the rubber toys prize the unopened products that can sell for hundreds of dollars on eBay.

Wrestling hasn't left Weiss’s attention, either. Now a licensing and marketing executive for Accessory Innovations, she handles licensing deals for backpacks. “We have 40 different licenses, and wrestling is one of them,” she says. “So I’m still doing it.”

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