Gendered marketing from Lego and other retailers

Lego may provide some interesting architectural models but the company, along with other retailers, is being charged with having gendered marketing campaigns:

Debate over gender-based toy marketing has reached a fever pitch. In December, LEGO — a brand that previously could do no wrong — came out with a girlified version of their beloved blocks called LEGO Friends, and the marketers behind this switch were greeted with a bellowing, albeit virtual, “Why?” Now, a pair of 22-year-old activists for girls, Bailey Shoemaker Richards and Stephanie Cole, have launched a petition to get LEGO to commit to gender equity in marketing…

Bradley Wieners, executive editor at Bloomberg Businessweek, investigated why LEGO was trying to attract more girls at all. On the surface, he discovered they were responding directly to parents like Peggy Orenstein, author of “Cinderella Ate My Daughter” and poster-mom for equal-opportunity play. He quoted Orenstein saying, “The last time I was in a Lego store, there was this little pink ghetto over in one corner. And I thought, really? This is the best you can do?” The goal was to give little girls another option when they reach the “princess phase,” at around four-years-old, the time when boys their age enter their “LEGO-phase.” Because, as BusinessWeek reported, “Unlike tiaras and pink chiffon, Lego play develops spatial, mathematical, and fine motor skills, and lets kids build almost anything they can imagine, often leading to hours of quiet, independent play.”…

“It would be easy to assume that this is just about LEGO, but [it] is part of a much larger marketing environment that puts the interests of girls and boys into … limiting boxes,” said Cole, one of the women behind the new petition agains LEGO Friends. Indeed, other classic brands including Rainbow Brite, Strawberry Shortcake, My Little Pony — and even Troll dolls — have been transformed. The characters are much more slender, many look like they’ve gotten hair extensions, the Trolls carry purses. Sociological Images found nine examples which can be seen below.

Still, LEGO Friends touched a nerve that these other brands didn’t. More than 45,000 people have signed Cole and Richards’ petition, and parents are taking to Twitter, helping to spread word about the campaign with their hashtag #LiberateLEGOs.

Lego has been doing this for years: as a kid, I had Lego castles and pirates while my sister had a Lego ranch with horses and pink fences.

It would be interesting to see how successful Lego has been in selling “girl Legos.” If this petition is any indication, there are plenty of girls who are playing with and buying regular Legos, not Legos specifically aimed at girls.

Why not have a campaign about “boy Legos” as well? Lego has tended to sell boys a lot more violent kits where pirates, medieval characters, and Ninjas wield weapons.

Perhaps lost in all of this are City Legos. These are typically street scenes full of workers, shops, and government facilities (police, fire, etc.). Which gender do these appeal to most?

The builder behind Lego’s architecture series

Perhaps you have seen them in the store: Lego kits that allow you to build the White House, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, and many other buildings. Here is some background on the man who designs these kits:

Tucker is a serious sort, with a vaguely brooding air — not impolite, but not comfortable with niceties. He does not flinch from saying that he is an artist and that the Lego is a real medium. “I have zero interest in this as a toy,” he said, holding up a brick. He did not seem like the type who sets out on a Lego-based career path. And he wasn’t. He’s 40 now, but five years ago he was designing high-end residential homes until the real estate market started going stagnant, he said, and clients started drifting away and canceling new projects. He and his business partner split up, and so, rudderless, he moved back in with his parents.

“Six months into my hiatus, I sat down and wrote up a list of everything I wanted to do in this life,” he said. “Didn’t matter what it was — race car driver, dentist, architect. Then I looked at the list and refined it, and through a process of elimination I realized I wanted to work with my hands and I wanted to be my own boss — because I don’t take authority figures especially well. Also, I wanted to do something with architecture. The thing is, how could I be an inspiration to others if I was working in a medium most people can’t do?”

Here’s what he did: He drove to a Toys R Us in Highland Park and loaded eight shopping carts with Lego kits. He then came home, sat on the floor, spread the pieces out at his feet and, because he hadn’t played with Legos since he was a kid, reacquainted himself. He built samples and took them to a Lego convention in Washington, where he caught the eye of Lego brass.

He found Lego at the right time: After going through a rough patch in the late ’90s, the company was ready to refocus on design, and by 2008, at the height of the financial crisis, sales were up 40 percent, making it the rare company that not only weathered the recession but didn’t feel it. Tucker, meanwhile, rounded up licensing agreements with building owners. “I got a sense he didn’t have many contacts, so I set him with the people in other important buildings,” remembered Randy Stancik, the general manager of the Skydeck at Willis Tower, where Tucker’s Willis Tower kit has long been the most popular tchotchke in the building’s gift shop.

Tucker’s relationship with Lego is complex. He is not a Lego employee. With his wife, Brittny, he runs Brickstructures, which has a long-term contract that says he can only design kits for Lego. He also distributes the Architecture series in North America himself, using Lego’s warehouse in Wood Dale (though Lego distributes the series internationally). When I asked who owns the rights to the kits, he said it’s a gray area.

Is this a success story from the new American economy? Alas, it seems like there is only one such job available…

Some additional thoughts:

1. I’ve wondered this for a long time as a Lego fan: why are these sets so expensive?

2. Does Lego have a larger goal of helping people understand the world’s great architecture? If not, why not bill these as educational products? Then you might really see these fly off the shelves.

3. If I had to guess, I would say these sets are bought primarily by highly educated people. Perhaps we can apply Bourdieu to this: lower-class people buy them because they are fun to play with and make a nice decorative piece while the middle- and upper-classes appreciate the aesthetics (squared off as they may be) and knowing about great architecture.

4. Are Lego creations considered art by the broader art community?