It’s hard to imagine the iconography surrounding Disney’s 1989 film The Little Mermaid being complete without the flowing red locks of Ariel, the titular woman-fish hybrid. The movie was a gigantic success, revitalizing Disney’s languishing animation division, and Ariel quickly joined the brand’s lineup of beloved princesses. Who could complain?
Toymakers, apparently. In an interview with CinemaBlend, The Little Mermaid co-director Ron Clements revealed that executives at Tyco, the toy company that had obtained the license to make dolls and other merchandise based on the film, were horrified to learn the main character was a redhead. The reason? They were convinced that redheaded dolls didn’t sell.
“They said, ‘All of our research … shows that redheaded dolls have never sold,’” Clements said. “And we said, ‘Well, I’m sorry, but she’s going to be a redhead.’”
Tyco was apparently so concerned over the hair color issue that early Ariel dolls were produced with strawberry-blonde hair. It’s not clear whether any made it to stores, but if some did, they’re likely collector’s items now.
Ariel was far from the first doll to sport red hair—some of the earliest Barbies in the 1960s had locks that could change color from black to red when kids applied a special solution—but the success of The Little Mermaid merchandise likely helped licensees relax when it came to market research. Since then, a number of redheads have risen to prominence in popular culture, including Chucky, Conan O’Brien, and Disney’s own version of Quasimodo.