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Image: Barbie and Ken in Toy Story 3
Disney/Pixar
Much as Pulp Fiction did for John Travolta, Ken's scene-stealing part in Toy Story 3 restored him to his previous status of pop culture icon.
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updated 2/14/2011 8:59:23 AM ET 2011-02-14T13:59:23

Barbie Millicent Roberts has fallen for Ken Carson. Again.

The world's most famous plastic couple is scheduled to reunite on Valentine's Day. The comeback will be no small feat for Ken, who sank into obscurity after Barbie dumped him in 2004, ending a relationship that had endured 43 years. The split, described then in a Mattel press release as the "breakup of the millennium," cast Ken further into Barbie's 11½-inch shadow. 

The rejection came as no surprise to Ken fans. Over the decades they'd watched him become little more than an accessory, like one of Barbie's sparkly tiaras. Mattel even referred to him as "arm candy." Then in 2004, Ken disappeared altogether. "He's never been in the spotlight," says Jef Beck of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, founder of He's a Doll!—a Ken collectors club—and the author of the forthcoming I ♥ Ken: My Life as the Ultimate Boyfriend.

Much as Pulp Fiction did for John Travolta, Ken's scene-stealing part in Toy Story 3 restored him to his previous status of pop culture icon. The Walt Disney-Pixar film was 2010's highest-grossing film worldwide, with $1.06 billion, and earned a Best Picture Oscar nomination. Mattel's publicity machine has been in overdrive ever since.

Businessweek: A (Plastic) Love Story

Ken, who turns 50 on Mar. 13, now has his own Facebook page and Twitter feed (sample tweet: "Weekend Ken-fession: I may have knocked somebody over while walking and playing Madden on my iPhone this morning. My bad."). In January, Hulu.com began airing a Bachelor-style reality show called Genuine Ken: The Search for the Great American Boyfriend.

Beaming with confidence after his big-screen debut, Ken won his ex back with professions of love on big-city billboards and ads in Us Weekly. One message: "We may be plastic, but our love is real."

His handlers also revamped his image, giving Ken a Justin Bieberesque makeover complete with floppy locks, skinny jeans, and graphic T-shirt. "They softened his looks a little bit, but he's still as handsome as ever," says Sandi Holder, a Barbie expert from Union City, Calif., who once auctioned one of the dolls for a Guinness World Record of $27,000.

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Ken's comeback has been years in the making and came after a shakeup at the world's largest toy brand—Barbie sells more than $1 billion a year—that began in 2008 when Richard Dickson took the reins of a business in decline. Amid competition from upstart brands such as MGA Entertainment's Bratz dolls, the Barbie division had lost about a quarter of its revenue since 2002. "Many people said, 'Are you sure you want to get into that mess?'" says Dickson, who had previously run Mattel's consumer products unit. 

Businessweek: Mattel Gains as Profit Beats Estimates on Barbie Sales

The new guardian of Toyland's First Couple was less protective of the brand's image than the previous regime. "We gave people permission to play with our brand, to have fun," in the hope that it would become culturally relevant again, says the 42-year-old Dickson, who left Mattel a year ago to become brand president at The Jones Group.

Under his watch, Mattel greenlighted the couple's appearance in Toy Story 3. Mattel didn't have script approval and let the filmmakers cast Ken, voiced by Michael Keaton, as a vain, leopard-print-wearing metrosexual. In one scene, Ken cries: "I'm not a girl's toy." Says Dickson: "Poking at Ken's cultural noise is part of the fun. If you are talking about it ... then we are doing our job."

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Businessweek: Behind the Barbie-Ken Breakup

The changes Dickson unleashed have boosted the brand's sales, which rose 6.8 percent to $1.25 billion in 2010 and may increase 4 percent this year, according to UBS Securities analyst Robert Carroll. "Barbie has gotten her groove back," he says. Sales of Ken dolls have rallied too, says Stephanie Cota, who succeeded Dickson as Barbie chief, though she won't give specific figures. Despite Ken's breakout movie role and his growing ranks of Twitter followers, his future depends, as always, on the woman he loves. Says Cota: He'll stay in the spotlight "unless he does something to really upset Barbie."

Story: Ken woos — and wins back — his ex, Barbie

The bottom line: Mattel has brokered a reconciliation between Ken and Barbie as part of its brand-marketing strategy.

Copyright © 2012 Bloomberg L.P.All rights reserved.

Photos: Barbie and Ken’s long-lasting love

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  1. Barbie and Ken

    Barbie and Ken, America's favorite fabulous plastic dolls, have a long history, logging in some 43 years as significant others. They've gone through many looks, themes and hair colors over that time. Take a look at their top moments. (Paul Jordan / Barbie via Mattel) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. 1960s Barbie & Ken

    It all started in the spring of 1961. Ken Carson was new on the scene and love was in the air...

    First introduced at the American International Toy Fair as Barbie doll’s boyfriend, Ken doll arrived on the scene March 11, 1961, standing 12 inches tall and sporting his now famous “molded” plastic hair. With his red bathing trunks, yellow beach towel and sandals, Ken was dashing and different from any other doll on the shelf. A few weeks after the fanfare of his global debut, Ken met Barbie for the first time on the set of their first TV commercial together. As soon as he laid eyes on the blond beauty, it was love at first sight. The rest, as they say, is history. (Barbie via Mattel) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. 1970s Barbie & Ken

    In the 1970s, the couple stepped out together with the grooviest hairstyles of the decade as Quick Curl Barbie and Superstar Ken. One of their most instantly recognizable looks, Sun Lovin' Malibu Barbie and Sun Lovin' Malibu Ken, made sun-kissed tans all the rage. (Barbie via Mattel) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. 1979 Barbie and Ken

    The disco era was good to the pair, both blond, glamorous and ready to party on a dance floor or at the beach (hello, Malibu Barbie and her dune buggy). (Paul Jordan / Barbie via Mattel) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. 1980s Barbie and Ken

    The duo tried many different careers, including roles in business, politics and even space exploration. They also tried on new roles as Olympians, pilots and dancers — but never lost sight of their adoration for each other. (Barbie via Mattel) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. 1984 Barbie and Ken

    Throughout the '80s, the couple continued to set trends with their big hair and flashy style as Dream Date Barbie and Dream Date Ken. (Paul Jordan / Barbie via Mattel) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Rollerskating Barbie and Ken, 1980s

    The fantastic plastic couple were known for their many extracurricular activities. The two loved to skate, swim and buy expensive toys for their Malibu dream house. (Barbie via Mattel) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Barbie and Ken, 1990

    Barbie and Ken share an immense love of style and the two never shy away from new trends and bright fads. () Back to slideshow navigation
  9. 2004 Barbie and Ken Breakup

    On Valentine’s Day 2004, after more than 43 years together, Hollywood’s quintessential couple decided to spend time apart. Creating a worldwide sensation, Barbie began dating Blaine, an Aussie surfer who charmed his way into her heart.

    However, proving that true love stays in your heart forever, Ken made a big play to get Barbie back in 2006. He enlisted the help of celebrity stylist Phillip Bloch to impress Barbie with a “Hollywood makeover.” Although Ken scored big points with Barbie for the effort and new look, the two dolls remained just friends. (Barbie via Mattel) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Barbie and Ken in 'Toy Story 3'

    After several low key, behind-the-scenes years, Ken decided it was time to step out in a big way in 2010. In the spring of that year, Ken reignited his mass pop culture appeal with his critically acclaimed self-portrayal and starring role in "Toy Story 3." Ken was back as the ultimate bachelor. He became a social media butterfly, with new profiles on Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare, and was the inspiration for an all-new digital reality series, “Genuine Ken: The Search for the Great American Boyfriend.”

    Everyone’s favorite male fashion doll even got the Big Apple buzzing as he made special appearances during Fashion’s Night Out. (Barbie via Mattel) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. 'I want you back'

    Ken left no stone unturned in his quest to get the bodacious blonde back. He put his heart on his proverbial sleeve, posing on billboards starting Jan. 24 and on the Times Square Jumbotron starting Feb. 7 with such sentiments as “Barbie, I want you back,” “Barbie, you’re the only doll for me,” “Barbie, we were made for each other,” and a favorite, “Barbie, we may be plastic but our love is real.” The two got back together on Feb. 14, 2011. (Barbie and Ken via Mattel) Back to slideshow navigation
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Video: Ken meets Barbie

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