In a move that stirred even the most Barbie-fatigued among us, a Tuesday announcement that appeared to come from Mattel introduced a line of EcoWarrior Barbies inspired by environmental activists like Greta Thunberg and Phoebe Plummer, as part of a broader push by the company to stop using plastic entirely by 2030. Unfortunately for all of us, but especially the alarming number of very real outlets that reported on the news, the stunt was, naturally, a hoax. Here’s what happened.
So what was in this announcement?
A press release that was purported to be from Mattel and seemed to link to an actual page on the company’s site announced a commitment to stop using plastic in its products by 2030, instead opting for “only compostable natural materials like mushroom mycelium, algae, seaweed, clays, wood cellulose, and bamboo.” “We have made more than a billion plastic Barbies, and enough is enough,” read one “quote” from Ynon Kreiz, CEO of Mattel, in the fake press release. “With our plastic-free commitment, we denounce the empty promises of plastic recycling and take a bold step towards real ecological sustainability. Only sustainably produced toys can provide sustainable joy.” Actor and environmental activist Daryl Hannah — otherwise known as the one-eyed assassin in Kill Bill — was declared ambassador for the sustainability mission and received her very own sand-encrusted Barbie.
The group also released a number of other videos, including a commercial for EcoWarrior Barbie that featured a startlingly catchy jingle — “Made of mushrooms, she’s the best, EcoWarrior Barbie!” — and scenes in which Barbie throws a can of soup at a Van Gogh and gets arrested for shutting down an oil pipeline.
In another video, G.I. Joe, voiced by a mustached human mouth, declares the Joes’ intention to revolt against Mattel and experiment with bio-based materials. “We’ve turned against our makers because they build us out of toxic stuff,” says one mustached doll. “We’ve laid down our arms and our uniforms to work in the service of Barbie.”
Who’s behind it?
After a number of outlets fell for the fake press release on Tuesday, the “Barbie Liberation Organization” held a Zoom press conference in which the group revealed the hoax and called for Mattel to “stop pinkwashing your environmental crimes.” Hannah made an appearance, along with Nadya Tolokonnikova, founding member of the Russian performance-artist collective Pussy Riot, and what appeared to be children in Pussy Riot masks. “I think adults should just stop messing with our future,” said one of the masked children. “The Barbie Liberation Organization has spoken,” they all chanted in only mildly terrifying unison, fists raised.
The “Barbie Liberation Organization” is an offshoot of political activist group the Yes Men, founded by Igor Vamos and Jacques Servin (also known by their respective alter egos Mike Bonanno and Andy Bichlbaum). Active since 2002, the pair are known for organizing elaborate pranks against political figures and corporate entities, including George W. Bush, ExxonMobil, and the World Trade Organization, to name a few. The BLO — described as an “elusive cadre of renegade operatives” on its website — first took action in 1993 after the release of a speaking “Teen Talk” Barbie programmed to utter the deeply true but wincingly sexist statement: “Math class is tough.” The group purchased dozens of Barbies, manipulated their voice boxes to say phrases like “Vengeance is mine” and “Eat lead,” and put them back on store shelves.
What do they want?
In an email, BLO member Agatha Dorpe told me the group targeted Mattel because of the company’s “uniquely twisted dissonance: They make fun things out of toxic, planet-killing chemicals.” And though Greta Gerwig has ensured Barbie’s feminist enlightenment, the BLO now views the emphasis on identity politics as a distraction from Mattel’s environmental impact. “To say the doll is feminist now when the toy is contaminating the environment that the future of all humanity and all life depends on is kind of a colossal and bizarre joke,” Vamos told Yahoo News.
In an email, a Mattel spokesperson confirmed that the press releases were fake and not authorized by the company. (Asked if BLO had received news of any actual legal action from the toy company, Dorpe said over email, “No, but we’d love some.”)
Mattel has formerly announced some sustainability goals, most notably to achieve 100 percent recycled or bio-based plastic by 2030, but BLO stressed that recycling only prolongs environmental disaster, especially as the company still primarily relies on virgin petrochemical plastic. A recent Greenpeace report found that only 5–6 percent of recycled plastic was made into new products in 2021, down from a less-than-ideal high of 9.5 percent in 2014, with most plastic still economically impossible to recycle.
In the Zoom press conference, Hannah stressed that, while the stunt was a joke, it was “a very serious joke.” “Mattel is not going plastic free. But they should. And I’d venture to say they could, seeing as the Fortune 500 company is on track to gross about a billion dollars from the Barbie film alone.”