She’s the “Oppenheimer” behind Barbie.

In 1945, one of the most influential figures of the last century was building an explosive “weapon” that would change society forever, and it was the subject of a recently released blockbuster movie. But we’re not talking about Oppenheimer here. The J. Robert Oppenheimer behind Barbie World is Ruth Handler, a workaholic entrepreneur with red lipstick and a pink Ford Thunderbird convertible, and a groundbreaking figure worthy of a biopic.
While men were testing atomic bombs in the desert, this woman started her own company in her garage. And creating the most popular doll of all time wasn’t even close to her most valuable idea. In the early days of Mattel, the startup that Handler co-founded with her husband and later became the world’s largest toy company, she made a series of bold decisions, including marketing a toy called the Burp Gun, which led directly to the creation of Barbie, the movie Barbie, and the entire Barbie-integrated industry. The Barbie complex was born. She drew on the sales of millions of Burp Guns to create Barbie’s multi-billion dollar sales miracle.
Handler broke the rules of her business in three ways: how to sell, when to sell, and who would buy the toys.
She realized before anyone else in the industry that parents weren’t her target demographic, children were. She had also spent huge sums of money to advertise year-round on television programs, a strategy that proved to be revolutionary. So if you want to know about Barbie, you need to know about Ruth Handler first.
She was willing to do what no one else had ever done, and one of her key qualities as a leader was her willingness to take risks,” says Robin Gerber, author of Barbie and Ruth, a 2009 biography of the iconic mother of dolls. Taking risks meant that you would fail, but if you didn’t, you would never succeed.” What Handler, who died in 2002, had in common with today’s giants of industry wasn’t just the risk-taking ability that went into founding a company and conquering a market. Perhaps they can find themselves in the courageous woman who stood about 1.58 meters tall, wore long dresses and high heels, and climbed behind the wheel of a delivery truck with perfect hair. She’s hungry for data, obsessed with the new products she releases each year, and bold enough to adopt new technologies in pursuit of product superiority. To reach her accomplishments, one must be ruthless. She was also breaking the rules in ways that weren’t exactly legal.In 1978, the Securities and Exchange Commission charged Handler and other Mattel employees with fraud, false reporting, and other financial crimes. After choosing not to contest the charges, she was fined and required to perform community service.
Handler’s experience when she first started Mattel is far more remarkable than when she left the scene. Ruthie Mosko was born in 1916, the youngest of 10 children in a family of Polish immigrants. She married Izzy Handler against her family’s wishes and encouraged her husband to drop his last name in favor of his middle name, Elliot-because Elliot sounded less Jewish at a time when anti-Semitism was rampant. The couple then moved to Los Angeles, where they lived in a cockroach-infested studio. Ruth worked as a stenographer at Paramount Pictures, and her husband was a poor art student experimenting with a new type of clear plastic. Later, with Harold Matson, nicknamed Matt [Matt], they started a company in their garage called Mattel – the name combines Matt and Elliot. Among the founders, the strongest character was Ruth.
Elliot was in charge of design and Ruth was in charge of business. She said, “If he can make it, I can sell it.” Next, the visionary executive spotted an extremely rare sales opportunity in an inefficient, untapped market.
In 1955, three years after Mr. Potato Head first advertised his toys on television, Mattel had a one-hour meeting with an ABC sales representative, who recommended a way for Mattel to appeal to children virtually all over the United States: advertising on Disney’s new television program, The Mickey Mouse Club. Club) to advertise.
But here’s the rub: Disney wanted the sponsor to commit to a full year of advertising, which would cost about half a million dollars. A crazy request indeed for a toy company, and Disney didn’t actually have toy companies on its list of potential sponsors for children’s programs because it knew that neither Mattel nor its competitors would advertise on TV for months at a time.
Toy companies consider their business seasonal, so they blow their marketing budgets every holiday season, and selling toys the rest of the year is like driving an ice cream truck in the middle of winter.
Gerber writes in her book, “Any toy company that develops a year-round sales strategy will have an advantage over its competitors.” When Handler saw this Disney program, she thought of Mattel’s year-round sales strategy. By the end of the meeting, she had made up her mind. She was willing to bet the company’s entire fortune on an ad for The Mickey Mouse Club, and she knew what kind of product was worth risking a half-million-dollar investment. Handler asked Mattel’s advertising agency to create ads for a children’s cartridge, the Cowboy Ge-tar, and, of particular interest to her, the Burp Gun.
Promoting a toy gun on a children’s program was a matter of life and death for Mattel, Gerber says: “She could have lost the company.” For six weeks after the program premiered in October 1955, it looked as if Handler had truly lost the company: sales were negligible and she was suffering. What Handler didn’t realize was that there was a six-week lag in the transmission of sales results from the toy store to the manufacturer, which meant that the information she saw on her desk was already six weeks old. Six weeks after The Mickey Mouse Clubhouse aired, Mattel realized the Burp Gun had become a hit.
Despite selling a million guns in its first holiday season, the uncertainty was so troubling that Handler recruited private staffers to raid stores across the U.S. and track sales in real time. The task of this “retail contingent” was simple: collect data and get it back to her immediately. Soon, she had better information in one day than her competitors did six weeks later-so Mattel could make smarter decisions faster than its competitors.
Recognizing that Mattel’s consumers were children, not parents, she appealed to them by placing advertisements on television shows that children watched. Because of her move, retailers no longer had to tell parents what they should buy, and parents could no longer buy their children the toys they desired. Almost single-handedly, she took the power away from the adults and gave it to the children who wanted the Burp Gun. And that group was huge. Mattel’s sales in 1954 totaled $4 million. In 1955, the company sold $4 million in burp guns alone.
The following summer, the Handlers took a boat trip to Europe, bringing back the souvenir that inspired the company to develop its signature toy. It was a doll that had been seen in German adult stores as an ideal trick gift for bachelorette parties, but it didn’t look like a typical Mattel toy for American children-as Handler heard from the nation’s largest department store when he brought Barbie to the 1959 Toy Fair. Men simply couldn’t imagine a woman buying a doll with breasts for her daughter. Handler’s friend, TV producer Fern Field, said, “Nobody thought Barbie was going to work, nobody.”
At the time, Field was preparing to make a movie about Handler. But what those buyers didn’t realize was that Handler had changed their world and made Barbie a big hit there. It didn’t matter what parents thought now, she could completely bypass them and appeal to children through television programs. gerber told me, “it used to be up to the parents, but with her, we lost control.”
Barbie was introduced in 1959, and the following year, Mattel went public. Today, the company, which had bet $500,000 on it, has a market capitalization of more than $7 billion. Mattel was founded by the Handlers during the Manhattan Project, and since then the company has gone through as many changes as Barbie has, but coincidentally, Mattel is rebranding its children’s toys as IP and trying to become the next Marvel.
Today, Mattel executives are looking for a new way out of the company’s original business tactics, and they’re using movies to sell more toys, just as Mattel once sold toys on TV. The most important moment in Mattel’s history actually occurred during a commercial break on The Mickey Mouse Club in 1959 – when, with a “boom,” Barbie hit the screen for the first time.

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