Have you seen Barbie's brand-new car and her tattoos? And Dora the Explorer, with earrings, and hair down to her waist?

Makeovers of two of Mattel's (NYSE:MAT) iconic girls have gotten people talking, but will they get people buying? Worldwide gross sales of both Barbie doll products and Dora the Explorer gear dropped in 2008 compared to the prior year, with Barbie sales dipping 9%.

They've got the look
Barbie's newest look -- including a pink Fiat 500 and temporary tattoos -- has irked parents critical of marketing body art to young girls. But with a new Barbie megastore of "retail-tainment" now open in Shanghai, Mattel clearly hopes to boost business amid the global recession.

Intrepid youngster Dora the Explorer is making her own splash as she jumps to tweenhood. In response to concerns that the new Dora appeared to have been inappropriately tarted up in a miniskirt, Mattel and Viacom's (NYSE:VIA-B) Nickelodeon recently revealed that Dora actually is wearing leggings and a tunic in girly colors.

The tomboyish preschool fave will remain the same, but this co-existing version (about 10 years old) is meant to keep older girls' affection as they interact online with Dora and her Explorer Girls.

This "immersive online world that will be tied into the complete collection of toys" is a nifty way to sell new products to younger tweens using built-in brand popularity. And unlike many games from Take-Two Interactive (NASDAQ:TTWO) and other game makers, the online Dora adventures are tailored to the way many girls think and play.

Playmates
Toymakers are going with whatever can boost sales in a tough economy. Competitor Hasbro (NYSE:HAS) attributed a 5% increase in net revenue from North America to toys aimed at boys, such as Star Wars and Indiana Jones products. The toy company also noted significant sales of licensed products hooked to Marvel Entertainment's (NYSE:MVL) Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk franchises.

Nevertheless, the girls' toy category saw a slight increase -- thanks to the reintroduction of the Easy-Bake oven.

The NPD Group reports that U.S. retail sales of toys declined 3% from 2007 to 2008. With specialty toy stores like bankrupt KB Toys giving way to megastores such as Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT) and Target (NYSE:TGT), everyone's competing in a smaller market.

But with Barbie looking like a million bucks and Dora bright as a penny, Mattel is hoping to end up on top. Both show that the company is keeping innovation alive so that it won't have to rev up from zero when the economy starts to climb. That's the way to play.

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Kris Eddy does not own shares in any company mentioned in this article. The Fool has a disclosure policy.