When LEGO announced that after four years of marketing research, the best they could come up with was a thinner, pinker version of their product, I admit, I laughed out loud. My first reaction wasn't outrage, but incredulity. A billion dollars of marketing research bought you... LEGO Barbie? After marketers have carpet-bombed a pink, appearance-obsessed consumer version of girl power via every conceivable media outlet for the past decade, did you really expect to hear little girls express a desire for anything else?
Turns out I wasn't the only one with a strong reaction to the new Ladyfig LEGOs. ("Ladyfigs"? Really, ask for your money back.) SPARK (Sexualization Protest: Action Resistance Knowledge) movement girl blogger, Stephanie Cole wrote, "the part of me that still fondly remembers epic LEGO vs. Playmobile battles with my sister and cousin, is pretty royally pissed off." The new Ladyfigs, she notes, "are taller, skinnier and they have boobs. They will be marketed to girls five and up. Why?"
We know why. In truth, LEGO may very well get a larger market share if they have two separate lines of products. "Unisex" and "gender neutral" are blasphemy to a large percentage of parents, who are quick to point out that girls and boys play differently. But as neuroscientist Lise Eliot explains, "boy-girl differences are not as 'hard-wired' as many parents today, imbued with the Mars/Venus philosophy, believe." The human brain is "fantastically plastic" and the best thing we can do for our children is to give them a full range of opportunities and experiences, especially in the early years. We don't know at five how little Tierra's or Tommy's passions and talents will surface, so why pay good money to limit their options to the pink and blue aisles of toy stores?
SPARKTeam blogger, Bailey, promoting Stephanie's post on Twitter, soon began an exchange with LEGO: "They thanked me...and respectfully disagreed, stating that four years of research had told them," in so many words, "that the mini-skirt-wearing, hot-tub-bathing, beauty-shop-running LEGO ladies are what girls want now." As if Bailey didn't know the difference between market research, the goal of which is to figure out the best way to target and sell to children, and unbiased scientific research, the goal of which is to know what's good or bad for developing children. Of course, the unbiased research finds that the path LEGO has chosen, narrowing girls' options to a stereotypical version of femininity, is bad for girls.
LEGO, of course, already has a perfect product for girls. It's called LEGO, and all they need to do is invite girls to play. That's actually pretty easy. Add more female characters to the existing products and include girls in the existing marketing campaigns. The brilliance of LEGO is the opportunity for creative play and all young children will grab that opportunity if it's offered with enthusiasm. The problem, as Stephanie explains, is that marketers and ad execs insist that girls are not interested in their products unless they're pink and cute, even though they've already stacked the deck. "Who populates commercials for LEGOs?" Stephanie asks? "Boys! Where in the toy store can you find them? 'The boy's aisle.' So no wonder girls won't buy your products!"
Once upon a time LEGO also had a wonderful marketing strategy directed at girls. A 1981 LEGO ad featured a little girl proudly showing off her multi-colored LEGO creation, with the caption "What it is is beautiful." When SPARK partner organization, PBG (Powered By Girl), posted on LEGO's Facebook page a challenge to "bring back beautiful," within hours hundreds of posts from parents flooded LEGO's page, the challenge popped up on Twitter as #Liberatelego, and over 1500 signed PBG/SPARK's Change.org petition.
Oh, and you can have that bit of advice for free.