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Paid vs. Earned Media Through the Lens of The Barbie Movie

Barbie: The Movie has captivated audiences worldwide this summer. Everywhere we look, from movie theaters bathed in pink, to trending social media topics, and to many of our favorite products donning a special Barbie pink hue — it's clear that Barbie is the talk of the town. Regardless of personal opinions about the film, the undeniable wave of Barbie talk is impossible to ignore. This widespread phenomenon isn't mere chance, but the result of a meticulously crafted campaign with layers deeper than meets the eye. To truly appreciate the magnitude of a public relations effort such as this, we need to start by asking one important question: what is paid vs. earned media? Let’s distinguish the differences in these aspects of branding through the lens of the vibrant and all-consuming Barbie Movie.

What is Paid Media?

At its core, paid media is like reserving a prime-time slot for your message. But there's more to it than just shelling out money.

Think of it this way: you’re throwing a party and you want to ensure not only that the whole neighborhood knows about it, but that they get the invitation at the right time and in a manner they prefer. Some might appreciate a digital e-vite, others a glossy postcard, and a few might even like a personal phone call. In the advertising world, these varied methods of invitation represent different channels of paid media.

When brands or businesses opt for paid media, they’re essentially purchasing space or time to showcase their content. This can range from traditional avenues like TV commercials, radio spots, and print ads in magazines, to digital methods like pay-per-click ads on search engines, promoted posts on social media, or sponsored content with popular brands. Each platform offers its own set of advantages, targeting capabilities, and metrics for evaluation.

But there's a strategy in this selection between methods. Businesses need to consider their target audience. Are they young digital natives mainly on Instagram and TikTok? Or are they older professionals who read industry magazines and watch the evening news? Based on the audience's habits, businesses decide where to allocate their budget.

In the world of the Barbie Movie, it’s clear that the professionals behind the scenes knew what they were doing in targeting younger generations on Instagram and TikTok. Influencers on both platforms were leveraged when they were sent PR boxes filled with goodies and branded content. They shared these hauls with their followers as a form of advertisement on behalf of the movie. Also, there was a wide range of sponsored collaborations with popular brands. From Airbnb’s Malibu Barbie Dream House, XBOX’s Barbie controllers, and Funboy’s pool floats, to Superga’s sneakers, BEIS luggage, and Moon Oral Care. Each and every one of these collaborations, alongside so many more, were able to leverage the buzz around this movie and brand to position their products at the top of their unique niche markets. This ultimately yielded a return on paid media profits on the Barbie and Mattel Side, alongside the collaborator.

What is Earned Media?

Imagine you threw that same party we mentioned earlier. But now, the next day, the entire town can't stop talking about how it was the event of the year. People are raving about it at local cafes, sharing pictures on social media, and even the local newspaper features a story about its success. This buzz wasn't something you directly paid for; it's something you earned due to the sheer quality and impact of your event. In the advertising realm, this organic buzz and voluntary mention is known as "earned media."

Earned media comes into play when people voluntarily share, talk about, or promote a brand, product, or event without any direct financial incentive from the brand itself. This can materialize in numerous ways: word of mouth, reviews and testimonials, press coverage, social media mentions, and more. It's the universe saying, "Hey, this is worth talking about!" without a brand prompting the conversation with a checkbook.

While paid media requires a financial transaction, earned media is often seen as more authentic. It's driven by genuine consumer experiences, reactions, or journalist interests. And because it feels organic and genuine, it can often have a potent impact on brand reputation and public perception.

For the Barbie movie, the earned media that came as a result of some paid media initiatives were groundbreaking. The sea of pink you would see at the movie theatre turned into viral TikToks and creators putting together the perfect Barbie fashion inspiration. The movie posters showcasing the "different kinds of Barbies" turned into a phenomenon in themselves, with fans able to dictate what kind of “Barbie they were” and repost it to the media platform of their choice. It even got creative when zoos, aquariums, and museums featured some of their most prized exhibits in this poster trend.

Memes from all parts of the movie became booming across media channels as well as the term “Kenough” which is now featured on unofficial t-shirts and mockups all over the world. On TikTok and Instagram, dance challenges and singing videos to the Barbie soundtrack went just as viral.

And most of all, the conversations happening in day-to-day life, asking friends and family: “Have you seen Barbie yet?” “What are you wearing to the movies?” and “Did you see that collaboration?” are more popular than ever. This movie created a brand that has taken the world by storm and has everyone talking. The movie makers didn’t pay for any of these endorsements, big or small, directly, but they "earned" them by creating a noteworthy product.

Ultimately, these two principles of public relations—paid and earned media—are foundational in shaping almost every promotional campaign. Their interplay drives both the visibility and the organic reach of a brand's message. However, when we witness a brand skyrocketing to global prominence in such a short period, as in mere weeks, the distinctions between paid and earned media become particularly stark and illustrative. It's like watching a masterclass unfold in real time. The rapid ascend provides a magnified lens, revealing the intricate dance between strategic investment in advertising and the spontaneous, often unpredictable, ripple effects of genuine public engagement. By observing brands that achieve such meteoric success, we can garner deeper insights into the nuanced world of public relations and the power it wields in shaping public perception.

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Hunter Bowen
Hunter Bowen
Aug 30, 2023

Make connections to preexisting knowledge about free games.

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