Why LEGO has become more than a toy (1): media

LEGO and its medial meaning in our society, by Benjamin Franz

Environment and gender are just two social topics that media is focussing on when it comes to The LEGO Group and their products.

The LEGO Group started their way in 1932. When it began, the owner Ole Kirk Christiansen made wooden toys. If they would still produce only wooden toys, there would be no need to start this blog. So it’s not really about the story of the company itself when we are talking about LEGO, it’s about their most famous product, the LEGO brick and its cultural development. Also called the LEGO System. That’s what I will focus on.

 

So let’s talk about why I’m wasting my time in researching children toys. Well it’s easy. LEGO could not be any further away from being just a toy. “LEGO has become a communication media.” These aren’t my words, they are from LEGO Creator Expert Design Lead Jamie Berard in “A LEGO Brickumentary” from 2015.[1] But I will show how true these words are.

I present how LEGO became more and more important in the media concerning social topics. How big the company has grown and how some people use their sets as an investment. Finally I will show how scholarships already engaged with LEGO as a scientific topic and as an appropriate medium for science. 

 

In order to achieve this goal, I am creating a series of 3 blog articles that deal with the topics mentioned above in order to provide an overview of the topic. This helps to go deeper into the matter later. It all starts with LEGO in the media. I look at how LEGO is treated in the media and which topics are in the foreground.  The topics "environment", "inclusion" and "gender" will be considered even more explicitly.

LEGO in the media

My research on LEGO and especially its product LEGO bricks shows that there is, of course, no  uniform image of TLG and their products. But what you often notice is that LEGO is usually presented as a toy at the beginning and then as something that is more than just a toy at the end. This is especially true if the people who work with the LEGO pieces earn money with it.

 

The FAZ article, for example, reports that a woman with children's toys would use unusual methods to sharpen the profile of managers and entrepreneurs. The same applies to Marius Herrmann in an article of the Süddeutsche Zeitung, who as an AfoL (Adult fan of LEGO) earns his living with homemade models. The article begins with a story of how he meets people at parties and tells them what he does. This is intended to build a suspense arc. At first LEGO should be seen as a toy, but then the real work behind it should be considered, which one takes on, in order to be able to earn money with it. So it shows why LEGO is more than just a toy for children.

 

The media is essential to get information. It does not only reflect reality, they construct it in the first place. The well-known systems theoretician Niklas Luhmann said, "what we know about our society, about the world in which we live, we know through the mass media." [2] This means that when we deal with LEGO and talk about it, a lot of that knowledge comes from the media. "Media determine our perception, our communication, our living environment."[3] Not necessarily from traditional mass media like print journalism or television, but much more from blogs, forums, social media and more. Nevertheless, I will have a look at the following online articles from media companies, because they usually provide the topics on Social Media.

 

I can not count all the articles that have been made about LEGO and their bricks. It’s just impossible. 

Almost daily there is another newspaper or blog article While regional newspapers write frequently about people who are building their dreams out of LEGO bricks, supraregional ones talk more about macro topics. This is understandable, because if all forms of media were to write about each individual building project, there would be no space for other content left. But which serious topics matter specifically?

Environment

The LEGO set "40320 Plants from Plants". Pics by Bricklink.com.

A well-known media topic of the last few months about LEGO was how the company tries to be and wants to be noticed as a more eco-friendly business. The reason behind this is that LEGO created their first set completely made out of bioplastics. The Plants from Plants. As a company that has so far relied almost exclusively on plastics, it can hardly be described as environmentally friendly. According to a New York Times article: "Lego emits about a million tons of carbon dioxide each year, about three-quarters of which comes from the raw materials that go into its factories (...)". TLG now wants to “use sustainable materials in all [their] core products and packaging by 2030”.[4]

 

It remains to be seen whether the company will be able to implement its plan. 

 

LEGO lost at sea

lego lost at sea dragon media historysbricks environment bricks pieces beach cleaning
LEGO found at sea from "LEGO lost at sea".

LEGO lost at sea is a social media site from Tracey Williams which shares contributions from people who have found LEGO bricks on the beach.

 

The background is that in 1997 a cargo ship lost a total of 62 containers to a gigantic wave. One of them was filled with almost 5 million LEGO bricks. These parts now appear again and again from time to time at the Cornish beaches. So people set off to find these parts. At the same time the beach is often freed from other plastic parts or garbage. So it is an environmental project connected with the LEGO bricks. A BBC article "The Cornish beaches where Lego keeps washing up" from July 2014 deals with this topic. It also deals with the question of the extent to which the appearance of LEGO bricks can reveal something about the sea and its currents.

 

Above all, it also deals with environmental impacts. "If Lego is on land then it's fun. If it's on the ocean it's deadly, a poison for birds. If you lose one container with 5m pieces of Lego in it, that is a catastrophe for wildlife."  says article writer Mario Cacciottolo. The Daily Mail article goes in a similar direction. 

 

As mentioned above, LEGO cannot directly be considered as an environmentally friendly company through the sale of plastic toys. It's a disaster when millions of LEGO parts that were never meant to end up in the sea just go down there. Normally the bricks should not end up there. It would be interesting to know how many LEGO bricks anyway end up in the sea sooner or later. This would show TLG even more urgently that they have to change the material of their products and be more aware of the problem as the BBC article hinted it. 

 

The dragons and the octopus seems to be the holy grail. They are just rarely found. Pics by Tracey Williams.

Inclusion

lego historysbricks inclusion social topic gender media fun in the park city article petition disabled wheelchair
First minifig by TLG in a wheelchair. Pic by Martin Deutsch.

Besides environmental topics, media also covers many  other social matters. One of these important issues is inclusion. The question of how to better integrate disabled people into society. This question is not only about creating barrier-free housing and public facilities, but also about the extent to which disabled people are represented in society.  Until 2016 TLG has never added people who sit in a wheelchair in one of their sets. Members of the community, of course, have already built some wheelchairs on their own.

 

Probably due to public pressure the company received, including this petition, they released “60134 Fun in the park - City people pack” set. With that, TLG brought their own first version of a wheelchair. The set shows many different minifigures of different ages and gender spending their time joyfully in a park. Just as we imagine normal life and the wheelchair guy was included like it’s the normalest thing in the world and like they've always done it. TLG got a lot of media publicity and encouragement for this. Since that release, TLG has added a person in a wheelchair to one of its CITY sets every year. TLG btw. introduced the wheelchair in its offshoot for smaller children already in 2011. When the Spiegel article from January 2016 says that there will be no female counterpart to the wheelchair user for the current situation, TLG launched one the following year.

Gender

lego gender pay gap social topic historysbricks female injustice city women woman figures
The pay gap. Injustice towards gender. Pic by ladislaus_nim.

As in many parts of our society, gender is also an issue in the LEGO world. Often this debate is about social injustice, which is attached to gender. In fact, the number of female figures and, above all, their professional activity was strongly unequal compared to their male counterparts.  If you look at the numbers, you can see that. In the timeframe from 2004 to 2011 inclusive, LEGO released a total of 451 minifigures in its CITY series. Among them were only 46 female figures. Of these, just under 13 had a professional occupation, which could be identified by the design of the figure. Typical: The first profession of a female minfig was of course being a nurse. This was followed by a cook, a female farmer and later also a postwoman and policewoman. Whereas male figures were almost exclusively designed as workers. They were allowed to play the construction worker, the policeman, the pilot, the chief physician or the businessman for example.[5] This shows a clear imbalance in the social distribution of men and women in the LEGO world. A society with just under 10 % women will have serious problems. And a society that allows such distribution in children's toys is unlikely to have fewer problems.

 

It is therefore not surprising that the media took up this problem. The Bloomberg Businesweek article from December 2011 "LEGO is for girls" sums up the problem and the media atmosphere well. In terms of figures and themes, LEGO is seen as a pure boy's toy. But they claim that girls also want to play with bricks. The Danish company had to put up with this complaint. The story went so far that a little girl had to express her displeasure that there were no characters for her to have adventures with

 

Given this situation, it's hardly surprising that the LEGO Ideas Set "21110 Research Institute" which shows only female researchers - such as Paleontologist, Chemist and Astronomer, has  quickly received the necessary 10,000 supports to be considered by TLG as a possible new set. LEGO Ideas is a platform from TLG where fans can upload their own models and other members can vote for them so that they may become a LEGO set available on the market. Meanwhile there are already 23 official sets from this series. Another set from this is the  "21312 Women of NASA"  which was released in 2017. It honors the achievements and influence of deserving female scientists in space exploration. After all this criticism, it is hardly surprising that TLG has received a lot of media attention and, above all, approval for this step. The Smithsonian Magazine even advised The "Women of NASA" set for a potentially christmas gift for the last year. 

LEGO Friends

If you're an attentive reader, you'll have noticed that my own study of the number of female minifigures in LEGO sets only lasted until 2011. There's a reason for that. In 2012, LEGO introduced a new theme world designed specifically for girls. The LEGO Friends series.

lego friends female gender marketing injustice cliché pink purple media social 2014 toy fair
More purple than pink, still a cliché how girls are supposed to play by TLG? Toyfair 2014. Pic by Inside the Magic.

The series is TLG's attempt to attract more female customers. A look at the picture clearly shows that the toy has been based on other toy manufacturers such as Mattel. LEGO has joined the gender marketing industry towards girls and, thanks in part to the new series, directly generated a profit in the three-digit million range. This did not remain without media criticism. Gender researcher Schmiedel has her say in the German Handelsblatt. She says that LEGO used to be gender-neutral and only later established itself as a boys' market by offering theme worlds such as "knights" or "cowboys". The company is now trying to do this in a similar way for girls. In this way, archaic role models could be handed down and consolidated. 

 

In an article of the FAZ from September 2013, the role models of this new thematic world are criticized, as are the ethnic representations. Another point of criticism is that the figures are no longer the typical LEGO figures. So they are no longer angular and less human, but rather resemble the figures of the Pollypocket. This creates a natural difference between boys and girls. LEGO left its actual system. However, this was not the first time. Already with the Belville series there was the attempt to inspire girls with other themes and different shapes of minifigs for LEGO. The series was discontinued in 2008.

Much more

There are several other social topics I could talk about when it comes to matters of the mass media related to LEGO and their products. In short, LEGO as an investment or violence in LEGO sets

 

Using LEGO as an investment means, among other things, buying sets cheaply and then selling them later after they are no longer available in regular trading with a proper profit margin. This way of making money became especially famous when the "10179-1 Millennium Falcon UCS" was sold online after its expiration for a multiple of its original retail price. This is the point on which I will be further elaborating in my second article in this series when I look at LEGO from an economic point of view.

 

When it comes to violence, media reports very often refer to the study "Have LEGO products became more violent?" by  Christoph Bartneck  and his team. The study has to deal with problems like what can you define as a weapon and more. In the end, the study comes to its conclusion, yes TLG's products have become more violent in recent years and decades. This will certainly be mentioned on this blog - in terms of historical topics. For now, however, it is enough. Surely there are many other social issues that are being covered in the media, but the ones already mentioned are enough to make my point clear. This list is enough to show that LEGO is no longer regarded in the media as a mere toy.  

Conclusion

I have shown that social issues such as the environment, inclusion and gender play an important role when media reports about LEGO. They show that people are concerned with what kind of products this company offers what those actually embody. If one interprets the definition of  a toy in such a way that it is a single object that one uses to play with, it becomes clear that through a broad medial attention to it, it becomes more than it and its original use. LEGO pieces are not just only a topic media reports about. LEGO bricks have become their own medium. Because a medium is defined as a mean of transmitting information. [6] And the LEGO bricks themselves are already doing that. They represent gender roles, violence, inclusion, environmental issues and much more.  So remember when LEGO Creator Expert Design Lead Jamie Berard talked about that LEGO is a medium, he couldn't be more right. That makes clear that LEGO bricks are more than a toy.


Literature & sources:

[1]:  A LEGO Brickumentary, 2015.

[2]: Luhmann, Niklas: Realität der Massenmedien, Wiesbaden 2017, p. 9. (translated by myself).

[3]:  Münker, Stefan / Roesler, Alexander (Pb.): Was ist ein Medium? Back of book, Frankfurt, 2009.

[4]: Instruction leaflet of the LEGO Set "40320 Plants from Plants", 2018.

[5]: This is the result of my own research. As a basis I used the database at Bricklink.com, which lists all the figures from the CITY series.

[6]: Münker, Stefan: Was ist ein Medium? Ein philosophischer Beitrag zu einer medientheoretischen Debatte, in: Münker/Roesler (Pb.): Was ist ein Medium? Frankfurt, 2009, p. 322.

 

 

Recommended readings:

I highly recommend to read these two articles from Maia Weinstock in their rubric "Guest Blog" and "Voices" from the Scientific American.

- Breaking Brick Stereotypes: LEGO Unveils a Female Scientist

LEGO Adds More Women in Science to Its Lineup

Also watch this "A LEGO Brickumentary" (2015) trailer:

Article's author

Benjamin (Benni)

 

> Studying History BoA degree at LMU in Munich

> The man behind History's Bricks

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