Letter to Lego: The Case for Gender-Neutral Marketing (2012)

There was a recent story in the Guardian about Lego’s plans to “remove gender bias” from its toys. I noted when I retweeted that story that I had started writing to Lego about their gendered marketing way back in 2011. I have reposted a piece from 2011 that includes my first letter to the company. I wrote another in 2012, included below and also on the Wayback Machine. In it, I discuss the benefits of gender-neutral marketing for the company’s Friends line. I have other posts about Lego in my archives; follow the Lego tag to read them.

As much as we try not to make birthdays about presents, there is no getting around the excitement that birthday gifts bring. Case in point, my son, who recently turned six, threw his hands over his head and shouted “Yes!” when he opened his “big” gift. What was inside? The LEGO Friends Adventure Camper:

Lego Friends Adventure Camper.
Image from Lego.com.

I’ve written several times about LEGO Friends, most recently in a post where I describe my mixed feelings about the toys—stereotyped for girls, but a good toy for boys who want a different kind of LEGO experience, i.e. not just cops & robbers, construction, superheroes, weapon-wielding Ninjas, or Star Wars. 

So I have yet again contributed to LEGO’s profits for the controversial but highly popular Friends line because my son loves these toys so much. In addition to the camper, he also received from his grandma the Mia’s Bedroom set:

Mia's bedroom set, toy from Lego Friends line.
Image from Lego.com

He is thrilled that he now has enough instruments to create his own band with the drums, a piano, and electric guitar borrowed from a minifigure he bought a while back. 

Here is a look at his band, prior to receiving the drum kit. (Photo no longer available.) For those not familiar with the Friends minifigs, they underwent a bit of a transformation before being photographed here. The one on the right used to have long, blonde hair but it got switched out for a shorter ‘do. The one on the left is actually the same character as the one in the middle, but her hair was removed for a ball cap, better to suit her role as DJ, according to my son. 

Image of Lego Friends characters with changed hair and hats.
Image by Crystal Smith, 2012.

Seeing the fun my son has with the Friends, I am again left scratching my head about LEGO’s approach to developing and marketing this product line, so I decided to write to the company. My letter is below. 

Dear LEGO:

I know you have heard a lot about your new LEGO Friends product line and the very narrow play experience it offers girls, the only market you targeted. I am writing to talk to you about the market you completely missed: boys.

Although the sets are hampered by the new mini-figure who is a completely different shape from the iconic LEGO mini-figure and cannot move her hands or legs, LEGO Friends offers some innovations. Unlike many of the sets in your product lines, LEGO Friends offers kitchens and restaurants and musical instruments, like a piano and drum set. It also improves upon some of the other offerings in your product range. For example, the LEGO Friends Adventure Camper comes with far more accessories and better overall features than the LEGO City Car and Caravan, and Olivia’s House gives a more detailed play experience than the houses in your LEGO Creator line. Yet many boys who might enjoy these toys are dissuaded from playing with them because you chose to market them solely to girls. Even if boys expressed an interest, I wonder how many parents would be swayed by your marketing and deny these toys to their sons?

I wrote to you in March, 2011 about the dominance of stereotyped male characters in your toy sets. In that letter I said: “Toy marketing for products like LEGO is a large part of the media landscape for children, and it is very influential in shaping their attitudes about appropriate gender behaviour.” I would like to add that marketing also affects the people who buy the toys, namely parents, whose reluctance to think outside the gender box can also have an impact on children’s perspectives. It is a vicious circle, with children ultimately paying the price through limited play experience and further entrenching of traditional attitudes about gender. 

Despite the stereotyped toys and gendered marketing, I have purchased LEGO Friends sets for my son because I think the overall benefits to his play experience outweigh the negatives in this toy line. I know that by purchasing these toys and adding to your bottom line I am only contributing to the problem. After all, the more success you have, the more likely you are to continue your gendered approach to toy creation and marketing.  I also know that parents can choose to buy their children any toy they like regardless of the way it is marketed. But how many will, especially if it means buying something pink for their sons? 

My son does not watch a lot of television or view the ads on your website so he does not get the highly gendered messages you insist on delivering through your various marketing channels. And look where that leads him: LEGO Friends has become his favourite amongst all of your product offerings. I would wager that he is not the only boy interested in these toys, although he may be among the minority of boys who have been taught to ignore gendered marketing and just enjoy toys for what they are. 

I am pointing out my son’s very positive reaction to the LEGO Friends line to inspire discussion at your corporate headquarters about the limitations you place on your toys with your marketing. Here are some of the questions I have. Perhaps you can keep them in mind during your next product development cycle:

  • Why such rigid gender lines? 
  • Why work so hard to exclude half of your potential target market from your new product lines? 
  • The “Caring” section on the LEGO Brand page of your website says: “Caring is about the desire to make a positive difference in the lives of children, for our partners, colleagues and the world we find ourselves in, and considering their perspective in everything we do….” Even though gender stereotyping might sell toys for you, do you really believe that it makes a “positive difference in the lives of children”? If not, then why not change your ways and open up the play opportunities in all of your toys to children of both sexes through more neutral marketing?

Thank you for your time and consideration. I would welcome any response you can provide to my questions. 

Image of Lego bricks:  86271555 © Gearstd | Dreamstime.com

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