Occasionally I get exercised to write about stuff I don’t like. These posts are rarely about things I didn’t like beforehand, but almost always where I’ve been disappointed, most signficantly by someone or something whom I had previously respected, trusted or admired.
Marketing is often a mission to manage expectations. Does the product match up against the claims of your concept or advertising? Apparently Terence Malick’s 2011 film The Tree of Life attracted significant audiences last year among people who saw Brad Pitt feature strongly in the trailer, but then who left after barely 20 minutes, aghast by Malick’s beautiful but arthouse meditations on the creation of life and the nature of what is divine (and the relative lack of Brad Pitt).
Lego is surely one of the greatest brands of all time. For over 60 years these plastic bricks have entertained and inspired children of all ages all over the world. Iconic in the extreme, it has succeeded in also reinventing itself and moving with the times. Having introduced Space Lego in the 1970s shortly after the Star Wars movie phenomenon and before the real-life Space Shuttle, there are now themed Lego sets for virtually every major film franchise; in fact, it would be almost unthinkable for a studio to ignore Lego merchandising. As a company, Lego is flying. Its last full year report (2010) declared revenue and profits up over 30% vs 2009, and the first half of 2011 continued that sort of growth.
Lego is universal, simple and timeless. It has no language barriers, or even issues of sex, class or development. All it requires is imagination to create, build, rebuild and tell stories. I loved it as a child, and my daughters love it now. As I type this they are creating their own narratives using Harry Potter Lego characters and buildings. Hannah has built a new flying ship out of Hagrid’s hut, and there’s a lot of head-switching between the Death Eaters and the Weasley family.
This Lego ad from a generation ago sums it up perfectly. Anyone can build anything, and it can represent whatever they want it to. Hannah loves both her Lego technic kits which she can now almost rebuild without the instructions to create helicopters and bulldozers and her Harry Potter sets, which are endlessly demolished and restyled to suit today’s ideas.
Lego is cool without having to try to be cool. It’s been used in street art, features in countless spoof Youtube clips, including this beautifully observed version of Summer Nights, and of course, that Eddie Izzard routine. Perhaps most famously(?), the award-wining director Michel Gondry used Lego to transform The White Stripes…
All of which makes my groan of disappointment more heartfelt when I see stories like this one. Not content with their brand being timeless and sexless and perfect in almost every way, the maestros at Lego have evidently done some (too much?!) research that says girls don’t like Lego enough, because they also play with Polly Pocket and Barbie and Bratz.
So, no doubt targeting some unpleasant measure like “share of playroom occasions”, the Lego people have launched Lego Friends, a depressing copycat against all those other brands that try to tap into girls’ modes of play in which relationships and sharing are all important (as opposed to boys who build things and blow them up). Do they not realise that Lego does this already? With film characters and generic scenarios (farms, cities, homes), Lego already fulfils everything a child’s imagination needs to run riot. It lets my daughters plan wedding parties for Harry Potter and Ginny Weasley, as well as fight battles against dragons and Death Eaters.
Apparently not… now girls can have their ‘own’ Lego ‘Friends’, who ignore the timeless, genderless qualities of the brand, who ignore the brand’s differentiation through simplicity, instead opting for stereotypical clichés that already exist from floor to ceiling in practically every aisle of most toy stores. Instead of appealing to the imagination inside every boy and girl, these new ranges appeal to constricting cultural ‘norms’ in which young girls are assumed to want to be teenagers, in which their toys leap from being babies (dolls) to teens with breasts and makeup and low self-esteem, and in which the world-view horizons are crushingly mundane. Can they go no further than the Shopping Mall or pet shop? Is this Lego’s failure to inspire us, or a sad indictment of our own failure to inspire our children?
And in amongst all this Lego has created a rod for its own back. By making these Friends so stultifyingly contemporary, they will be forced to update them with every shift in technology and fashion. “Your Lego ‘Emma’ has only got a 1st Generation iPad… LOSER”.
Lego has disappointed me, in many different ways.
- This campaign is reactionary, defensive and weak, and seems to betray a lack of confidence in its own magnificence.
- It’s unnecessary, utterly avoidable: their products and brands are fabulous and always have been
- They’ve reduced themselves to a lowest common denominator. Other brands go for the fashion route because they have to, because they don’t have what Lego has. This will be short-term and forgettable. Lego will endure and thrive.
Last summer we had a family trip for my daughter’s birthday to Legoland at Windsor. I was at least partly dreading it, because I get nauseous when companies try to sell me a bottle of water for £3.50 or photos from a ride for £12. It was busy, but it was terrific. The Lego landscapes are fantastic and there are brilliant adaptations of the Lego philosophy into real experiences: you can drive a Lego Fire Engine and control a Digger. There are Lego castles and trains. Even the Lego shops are brilliantly stocked with hard-to-find sets. It is a terrific day out.
I love Lego. I have a Lego Indiana Jones figure keyring, which should say pretty much everything about my relationship with the brand. But this, Lego Friends, is depressing, demeaning and so, so disappointing. In true parenting style I shall try to ignore such bad behaviour, and reward their otherwise fantastic behaviour with all the other sets my daughters love to play with, every day, every week.