Barbie Takes Up Rock 'n' Roll to Match Rival Jem

Times Staff Writer

A battle of the bands is being waged in the nation's doll houses.

At the top of the charts is Barbie, a 27-year-old star glowing like never before as the hip lead singer of the Rockers.

Rising fast behind her is a punked-out, platinum blond named Jem, who together with her band, the Holograms, is hoping that one day, she'll leave Barbie singing the blues.

The rivalry began early this year with the nation's two largest toy makers vying for supremacy in the latest addition to the rock video trend: rock 'n' roll fashion dolls.

For the first time in her history, Barbie is facing formidable competition on the fashion doll front, and toy industry analysts believe that Jem has been threatening enough to send Barbie's manufacturer, Mattel, scrambling to stay on top.

"We are forcing Mattel to create an identity for Barbie," said Stephen A. Schwartz, senior vice president for marketing for Hasbro Industries of New York, the creator of Jem. "Jem really has a social conscience. Her world is not about shopping and dating. She is a working girl, a woman of the '80s. She's an executive. She makes decisions. She has lots of pressure. Barbie never did that."

While officials at Mattel deny any connection between Jem and Barbie, Barbie's latest occupation as a rock singer is one of many changes that seem to mirror Jem. Insiders speculate that Barbie may even join the world of children's television next year--the place where Jem got her start.

Hasbro introduced Jem--a 12 1/2-inch version of a cartoon rock singer--at the 1986 Toy Fair, an annual trade show in February sponsored by the Toy Manufacturers of America.

Mattel started out as the industry leader with sales of more than 15 million Barbies last year; it had its glittering, shocking-pink, rock star version of Barbie on store shelves one month earlier.

"Jem originated as an obvious challenge to Barbie and has been a definite competitor," said Harold Vogel, an industry analyst for Merrill Lynch. "It remains to be seen whether it will be a permanent competitor or just for several years."

Jem and her four-doll band have shocked both the toy industry and Hasbro executives by rising to the 10th spot in the October Toy Hit Parade--a ranking of popular U.S. toys by monthly retail sales volume--less than seven months after her debut.

Barbie is holding steady behind G.I. Joe and Pound Puppies in the No. 3 spot, but it is apparently the first time that another fashion doll has neared Barbie in the ratings, according to Rick Anguilla, editor of Toy & Hobby World magazine, which publishes the hit parade.

"When you go up against a franchise like Barbie, you know you're never going to knock her out," said Hasbro's Schwartz. "Our only intention was to bring more excitement to the market. We've done that. Our sales are up. Mattel's sales are up."

Although Hasbro and Mattel refused to release mid-year sales figures, Mattel reported that sales of Barbie dolls and accessories have hit an all-time high since the introduction of Barbie and the Rockers. Retail sales of the Rockers line alone are expected to reach $70 million this year, according to Candace Irving, Barbie marketing manager for Mattel.

A whole set of Barbie and the Rockers could cost parents about $70. The set has a Hot Rockin' Stage, Barbie and her four backup singers--including her new boyfriend, Derek. (Longtime beau Ken is still around, but he's not part of the Rockers.) A similar setup for Jem would run about $80.

"One can't disregard the reputation Barbie built over the years," said Toy & Hobby World's Anguilla. "Barbie has always been hip to the latest trend. But she seemed to be holding off on the music video thing. I have to wonder what prompted Mattel to finally do it."

Some critics believe that it was the news that Hasbro planned to market Jem, who was already familiar to young television audiences as the split-personality star of the Sunday morning Sonbow/Marvel Production TV show. On the air since early 1985, the half-hour animated cartoon called "Jem" revolves around Jerrica, a record company executive who turns into Jem, the rock star, at the sparkle of an earring.

The Jem story line, created by writers at Sonbow/Marvel months before Hasbro's plans to market the doll were completed, reads like a prime-time soap opera:

The wealthy, glamorous Jerrica Benton inherits the Starlight Music Co. from her father, but evil interests are battling for control. Jerrica is able to fight off Starlight's competitors when she becomes Jem with the help of a computer called Synergy. Several of her best friends are also transformed into the Holograms, and only they know Jem's true identity.

Life is complicated when Jerrica's boyfriend, Rio, falls in love with Jem, not knowing that they are one and the same. "It's a Superman, Superwoman, love triangle type of thing," explains Schwartz, who says the cartoon episodes usually end in cliff hangers.

Recently, Jem and Jerrica have organized a Live Aid-type concert benefit and a music awards ceremony, and have struggled against an evil punk band, the Misfits. A two-part special addressed the issue of runaway and homeless children, flooding a special Jem hot line with calls from runaways and would-be runaways.

Mattel denies that the Rockers were added to Barbie's world in response to the news that Hasbro would bring Jem to toy stores from the television screen.

"It would have been impossible to bring something out by the time we could confirm a rumor of that magnitude," said Irving. "We introduced it because rock 'n' roll is a big trend. Our Rocker dolls were in production long before we ever heard of Jem."

The industry has witnessed a step-by-step progression of Jem and Barbie rock 'n' roll accessories so identical that it has caused skeptics to doubt Mattel's claim.

Several months ago, Hasbro began marketing a roadster for Jem, complete with a built-in, working radio. For Christmas, Mattel is introducing a Barbie and the Rockers van with a battery-operated tape recorder and microphone.

Both have rock stages with backstage dressing rooms, and both have recorded their own songs. Jem has a theme song and sings on each cartoon episode. Barbie's four-song tape is included with each Rocker doll, so that girls can croon to tunes such as "Dressin' Up" when they pop tapes into their Rocker van tape deck.

In 1987, Mattel says, it will feature Barbie in her own media entertainment venture for the first time in her history. It is a move that Mattel avoided in the past "for fear of giving Barbie a cartoon-type personality and not leaving anything to the imagination," said Anguilla of Toy & Hobby World.

But Mattel flatly declined to discuss details of the entertainment project. Executives would also not comment when asked if they were trying to emulate the retail success of Jem and other toy products that have been featured in full-length cartoon series.

Barbie has three band members with new, frizzy hairdos and boyfriend Derek, each retailing for about $10. Jem and her band sport more daring makeup but a similar clothing style. An inch taller than the 11 1/2-inch Barbie, Jem and the Holograms, including Rio, with hair that can be combed, cost about $12 each.

Southern California toy retailers report that both dolls have been moving "unusually fast" from the store shelves.

"We've placed very large orders for both dolls, but it's so many I couldn't count," said Larry Gardner, supervising director for Lash Distributors, the supplier for Toys R Us stores in Southern California. "To date, Barbie and the Rockers has been the most popular. But they are both up there."

One father stopped by Toys R Us in Torrance on his way home from work to pick up a Misfit band member doll for his 6-year-old daughter. "She sings the Jem theme song around the house. And we have to be home every Sunday morning to watch the show. This is one of the few dolls in the set she doesn't already have."

Pam McCarthy of Torrance filled her cart with Barbie's Rockers items. "My granddaughter is turning 8, and this is all she can talk about," she said as she selected a fluorescent-green, sequined outfit. "She watches a lot of MTV, and this is the in thing."

McCarthy said she had never heard of Jem. But upon spotting the display of Jem and the Holograms, she said she would stick with her Barbie selections.

"I don't like the makeup on Jem. Barbie looks like Barbie," she concluded. "And besides, I bought Barbies for my daughters. Barbie is sort of a tradition, even if her clothes have gotten a little weird."

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