Lego then and now

Right. I’ve ranted about this before (see The Hate List 13.26) but I’m going to do it again.

The way Lego is currently marketed is a disgrace.

To show you what I mean, take a look at this classic Lego advert from 1981:

Points to note about the way Lego was being marketed 30 years ago:

  • Focus on the individual imagination and creativity of the child
  • Universal Building Set advertised as a leading product
  • No gender role stereotyping

Now compare Lego’s current website front page:

The animated focal feature cycles through four themes:

  • Star Wars (Yoda fighting combat droids – franchise, conflict)
  • Marvel Heroes (The Fantastic Four angrily wielding weapons – franchise, conflict)
  • Galaxy Squad (a battle mech and alien in a laser fight – conflict)
  • City (a police officer chasing and beating a suspect – conflict)

It’s the last two that upset me even more than the franchise-based ones. The Star Wars and Marvel stories are centred on conflict, so any toys based on them will inevitably share in that. But there’s no such excuse for the others. Lego’s old Space theme was focused on exploration: astronauts operating buggies and scout ships out of moonbases. There were no aliens being ethnically cleansed from their native habitats by giant combat robots. And the City theme used to be about building up a functioning urban environment, with its various infrastructure and services, not about glorifying police brutality.

Lego Space then (by Joris, from Wikimedia Commons)

Lego Galaxy Squad now (from Lego website)

The Products page gets even worse:

Out of the top 15 themes advertised, 11 are based on aggressive conflict. Of the remaining four, one is the Friends theme aimed at girls (which I cover in a separate post); one is video games (not Lego); and two (City and Minifigures) are apparently neutral. Until, that is, you visit those pages and realise that the City minifigure has an aggressive face because he’s a diver who kills sharks, and the “Mr Gold” minifigure, some kind of totem to unrestrained greed, is a relatively benign figure compared to most of the conflict-themed minifigures sold alongside him.

What got me fuming about all this again was this article in the Guardian, reporting on an academic study by Dr Christoph Bartneck at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand, which showed that the faces of Lego minifigures have become angrier over time. This is immediately apparent looking at the various themes, products and minifigures on sale now, and remembering the basic two dots for eyes and smiling mouth of the standard Lego face from the 70s, 80s and 90s.

It’s another sign of Lego’s degeneration, fundamentally linked to the trend I’ve already ranted about: the increasing focus on media franchises and conflict themes. It’s also related to another one: the fact that as the specialisation of Lego pieces increases, its overall adaptability decreases. It’s much easier to take a neutrally-faced figure and imagine a range of emotions onto him, than to take a figure which already has a specific emotion designed into it, and imagine different one. Lego will no doubt say that you can still adapt the minifigures to use in your own scenarios, but when they’re all scowling and baring teeth at each other, it’s pretty obvious where those scenarios are all going to end up in the easily-influenced mind of a child. Here’s a hint: it’s not going to be a co-operative scientific exploration of a moon surface.

Compared to to 1981, here’s how today’s Lego marketing works:

  • Focus on selling fighting characters and war narratives to children
  • Film franchises and conflict themes advertised as leading products
  • Pandering to the worst aspects of the male gender role stereotype

This will all be due to some marketing executive in the early 90s who will have said something like, “We need to build strong stories which we can present to children, and sell the products on the back of them.” Apparently no-one at that meeting had the balls to say, “No! The point of Lego is for children to create their own stories!”

You’re not in the story telling business, Lego, you’re in the story facilitation business. You should be giving kids the building blocks to make their own stories.

Just to remind you what Lego itself said in 1981:

“It’s a look you’ll see whenever children build something all by themselves.”

Unfortunately, it’s a look you’re unlikely to see on any children playing with Lego today.

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