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The Mattel Story

Mattel is one of the biggest toy manufacturers in the world, and was founded in 1945 by Harold MATson and ELliot Handler. They worked out of a garage in Southern California and sold picture frames and dolls house furniture made from scraps of picture frames. The latter proved more successful so they focused on toys.

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Mattel and Barbie


In 1955 by advertising their products via Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse Club on TV, Mattel tapped into a brand new way to reach their core market.

In 1959, Ruth Handler, wife of Elliot noted that their daughter Barbara had a fascination with paper dolls. She suggested that Mattel produce a three-dimensional version in plastic, with which little girls could play out their dreams of having a big, pink house with a pool and a car and lots of clothes. From this the phenomenally popular industry changer Barbie was born.

In 1961 Barbie got a non-threatening boyfriend, named after the brother of young Barbara Handler, Ken. They have been going steady for, to date 52 years. They were also joined by Midge and Skipper, Barbie’s new friend and sister. Midge would later become pregnant to teach little girls about reproduction.

Mattel Launch Hot Wheels

Hot Wheels

In 1968 Mattel rolled out the Hot Wheels. This line of die-cast extremely detailed miniature cars proved again exceptionally popular and long-lasting a line, surpassing Matchbox and Corgi in worldwide sales over time. Mattel bought Corgi in 1989. Matchbox sold their brand to Tycho in 1992 and Tyco were bought out by Mattel in 1997. A perfect example of how smaller toy companies tend to be absorbed by their competition. Hot Wheels are characteristically brightly coloured with metallic paint, frequently in hot rod models and designed for fast racing. A line of plastic racing track was sold alongside the cars to accentuate their speedy designs. Placed front to rear, all Hot Wheels Cars produced since ‘68 would form a ring around the planet Earth four times. Eight cars are sold per second, three tracks a minute, 230 playsets an hour.

Mattel Introduces Ethnic Dolls

Ethnic Barbie

That same year of 1968, the first of Barbie’s ethnic friends emerged. There was Christie, who was black, followed twenty years later in 1988 by Teresa who was Latino and in 1990 Kira, who was Asian.
In 1972 the company restructured to form Mattel Incorporated, one large company with seven subsidiaries.


Mattel Electronics

In 1979 with the movement of home entertainment systems bringing arcade realism to the living room at long last Mattel released the Intellivision. It did well for the company, shifting three million units, but within four years of bandwagon jumping which saw the Colecovision, the Coleco Gemini, the Atari 2600 and 5200, the Bally Astrocade, the Emerson Arcadia 2001, the Fairchild Channel F System II and the Magnavox Odyssey all vying for the public’s attention there was a video game market crash and by the end, as Mattel Electronics closed their doors, they had accrued over $394 million in losses.

After this, the market recovered and Nintendo started doing extremely well in the USA with its Nintendo Entertainment System. They made a deal with Mattel to have them manufacture and distribute the NES in Europe. However it would seem that after their defeat on the Intellivision Mattel’s heart wasn’t in it and the NES was outsold considerably in the PAL territories by the cheaper Sega Master system. Nintendo have gone on record in later years as considering this partnership a mistake.

Fortunately while their short foray into console manufacture ended dismally their toy division was doing gangbusters.

He-Man and Masters of the Universe


In 1982 He-Man and the Masters of the Universe hit shelves with a thunderous punch. The idea exemplified in Hasbro’s later Transformers and My Little Pony lines was to find a boy’s toy with the same killer appeal of Barbie. MOTU enjoyed series after series of figures with the tie-in Filmation cartoon.
These figures were insanely popular, generating $400 million in sales in 1985. The simple brilliance involved mass-producing a variety of colourful characters, introduced through the cartoon and made with a relatively small variety of legs, arms, torsos, weapons and armour, recoloured, mixed and matched with fun action features to make each hero and villain distinct and desirable.

In 1985 Mattel came full circle and started marketing He-Man’s twin sister to girls. She Ra had brushable hair and an array of friends with considerably more girly powers. Fortunately for boys her enemies were a gruesome bunch named the Horde who fit in perfectly with their existing He-Man collection.

There would be a brief resurgence in 1990 with the New Adventures of He-Man and then a more concerted effort in 2002.

In 2002 was the relaunch of the Masters of the Universe line, with figures based on the designs laid down two decades earlier but sculpted by industry hotshots, The Four Horsemen.

While they captured the fun and variety of the early line there were too many He-Man and Skeletor variants in hideous colour schemes that sat warming pegs. Also 1982 was a completely different time and they had less competition. In 2002 they were up against dozens of action cartoon tie-ins including their own lines.

Mattel Acquire the Disney License

Mattel Disney

In 1988 Mattel signed an exceptionally lucrative deal with Disney to produce toys based on their licenses. This deal persists to this day and has been key in ensuring Mattel’s market dominance.
In 1989 during Back to the Future Part II Marty McFly acquires a hover-board in 2015 ostensibly made by Mattel. Fans eagerly await the working model. In the meantime Mattycollector made a non-functioning replica in 2012 available online.

In 1995 Buzz Lightyear proved to be the hot toy of that Christmas, flying off the shelves as Pixar’s sleeper hit Toy Story surprisingly made kids want the toys. Mattel however were not the manufacturers, despite their Disney deal. Instead the license for this brand new character for this unassuming movie from a first-time studio went to Thinkway toys.

Interestingly Mattel and Hasbro refused both Barbie and G.I. Joe respectively for this first movie because the character Sid blew up what eventually had to be a Combat Carl with a firecracker and because Mattel believed that a little girl projects herself onto Barbie and that animating her and giving her a voice would shatter this fragile dream. They soon changed their tune when the Buzz Lightyear demand hit and Barbie was in the next two.

She was also in over 25 subsequent Mattel-produced CG animated movies.

Mattel has since begun producing Toy Story toys.

In 1996 Mattel gained the license to produce toys based on the many Nickelodeon TV shows.

In 1997 as mentioned before, they acquired Tyco. This granted them a leading line of remote control cars, but also the coveted Sesame Street label.

In 2000 Mattel won the rights to make the Harry Potter toys, which for well over the next decade would become enormous childhood favourites.

That same year they also sued the band Aqua for their song Barbie Girl, which depicted the character as an air-headed bimbo. The manufacturing titan lost the case in 2002.

Also in 2002 they closed their last American factory and outsourced the remaining production to China. Some time later there was a scandal concerning the levels of lead in their toys.

Mattel Acquisitions

Fisher Price

In 1993 Mattel acquired Fisher-Price, one of the most trusted and beloved makers of baby and toddler toys in the world.

In 1994 Mattel acquired Kransco and J.W. Spears and Sons. Two relatively innocuous names, but ones which granted Mattel the rights to the Frisbee, the Hula Hoop and Scrabble.

In 1995 Mattel won the right to distribute Cabbage Patch dolls.

In 1997 as mentioned before, they acquired Tyco. This granted them a leading line of remote control cars, but also the coveted Sesame Street label.

In 2007 they recalled over eighteen million toys with exposed magnets that were deemed unsafe. These included Polly Pocket, Doggie Daycare, One Piece, and Batman Manga.

In 2008, in conjunction with the San Diego Comic Con, Mattel launched a fan-focused direct order website named Through this site they sold the relaunched Masters of the Universe Classics line, made in loving tribute to the early 80’s originals, as well as a continuation of their Justice League Unlimited line.

In 2008, in conjunction with the San Diego Comic Con, Mattel launched a fan-focused direct order website named Through this site they sold the relaunched Masters of the Universe Classics line, made in loving tribute to the early 80’s originals, as well as a continuation of their Justice League Unlimited line.

As well as this there are Ghostbusters figures based on the classic movies. Watchmen figures based on the comics. DC Classics in the 6 inch scale and lovingly recreated versions of beloved Mego action figures known as Retro Action DC Superheroes.

Due to poor sales and distribution problems has since been discontinued.

Mattel & WWE Partnership

Mattel WWE

In 2010 they acquired the license to produce figures based on WWE wrestling that had previously been held by LJN, Hasbro, Toy Biz and Jakks Pacific. You can watch our dedicated wresting figures video for more on that.
Over the years Mattel has also been part of many philanthropic endeavours including The Red Cross and the UCLA Children’s hospital.
They were included in Fortune Magazine’s list of 100 Top Companies to work for in 2013. Over 1000 employees have been with the company for 15 years or more.

In recent years Mattel has experienced a slump in sales, particularly for Barbie, with units sold down 24% over the quarter. This can be attributed to a number of cultural reasons, the rise of interest in smartphones and tablets for younger children and the debilitating effect that has on their desire for toys, and sales of Hot Wheels and Fisher Price products have seen similar drops to reflect this. 

Also the fact that Barbie is less of a model for aspiration now than she was in 1959. She hasn’t really changed that much since the era that the TV show Mad Men is set, but America, the rest of the world and particularly its women absolutely have. This leaves Mattel in an interesting predicament. Stick to tradition and likely see sales fall further or gamble on a complete overhaul of the line and what it represents and either revitalize or severely weaken the brand.

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