Mattel's Biggest Hit Began Her Life as a Gag Gift

By Mac Greer & Chris Hill, The Motley Fool

Barbie may be more than 50 years old, but she is still one thoroughly modern gal. Mattel recently confirmed that it's producing a Barbie doll inspired by Hunger Games protagonist Katniss Everdeen.

That's right: A Hunger Games Barbie, heavy on rugged individualism and light on superficiality -- it's just the latest sign that 53 years after making her debut, Barbie still has what it takes to be one of the crown jewels in Mattel's (MAT) toy empire.

Sure, there were a few lean years in Barbie sales in the mid-2000s when Bratz grabbed the spotlight. But Barbie is back on top -- and as modern as ever – with worldwide sales reaching a gravity-defying $3 billion in 2010.

It's an impressive feat, given Barbie's rather, ahem, unrefined background.

Barbie Dolls
Barbie Dolls

Barbie's Bawdy Beginnings

In his new book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, Jonah Lehrer writes about how Barbie was actually the result of a cultural misunderstanding -- an innocent mix-up that became a huge moneymaker for Mattel.

It happened when an American traveling in Europe in the 1950s bought a Barbie-esque doll at a tobacco shop for her daughter. She had no idea that what she was purchasing was actually considered a bawdy gift for adults.

In this video, Lehrer, a best-selling author who writes about neuroscience, consumer behavior, and the business of creativity, tells the story behind this embarrassing slip that turned into a multibillion-dollar gold mine.

Neither Chris Hill nor Mac Greer owns shares of Mattel. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Mattel. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended creating a bear put spread position in Mattel.