We’re Rescuing a Girl? Is She Hot?—Gender Bias in LEGO Advertising

I wrote this post in May, 2011. LEGO became something of a fixation that year, what with all of the company’s stereotyping. Unfortunately, some of the clips and the letter from LEGO are missing– a result of the loss of this blog during a change to a new web host. 

It’s been about two months since I shared my thoughts on LEGO and masculinity. The company responded to a letter I wrote, but, as I indicated in my post about their answer, it was far from satisfactory.

I said in that same post that I would examine LEGO’s claims about gender diversity in their advertising and now I finally have. First, here are their exact words on this subject, from the letter they sent me:

“…we try really hard to make sure there are LEGO toys suitable for all children (both boys and girls) of every age and from every culture. We try to show this in our advertisements and catalogs by using pictures of boys and girls playing.” 

Now I will share what I found when I actually looked at their advertisements, catalogues, and LEGO Club magazines. (Luckily, my son is a bit of a pack rat when it comes to LEGO stuff, so I was able to look at three recent catalogues: Summer 2010, Holiday 2010, and January 2011, as well as several LEGO Club magazines.) 

Since the catalogues rarely include pictures of children, I found very little evidence of gender bias. In fact, between the three catalogues, there were just 2 pictures of children. Both happened to be boys, but I don’t consider this an overwhelming imbalance. 

Similarly, LEGO Club magazines rarely include pictures of children in their own copy. The only place where children figure prominently is in the “Cool Creations” section which shows pictures of children with their own LEGO inventions. In the 5 magazines I looked at, there was 1 girl pictured and 25 boys. I will assume that the imbalance is a result of more submissions from boys than girls, rather than deliberate gender bias. I could be wrong, but I will give the company the benefit of the doubt on this one. 

From the print materials, one could draw the conclusion that all is well and that LEGO is giving children the freedom to choose their playthings without all of the gender baggage that comes with so many other toys. 

But print catalogues make up only a portion of the LEGO marketing budget, and I would guess an increasingly smaller one. I do not have current breakdowns, but I assume the company spends a small fortune on its website. Way back in 2002, Alex Algermissen, the company’s Global Marketing Manager, talked about LEGO’s online marketing strategy: 

“Lego.com gets an average two million unique visitors per month, with holiday peaks over three million, and steadily growing. But most impressive is that consumers spend more than 45 minutes with us in one session, which outlines the great experience our Website delivers to children…[A]s children spend more and more time online and their accessibility to the Internet grows proportionately, and LEGO offers more content in local languages, online marketing becomes a more integrated part of the entire communication mix.”

And it certainly has. The LEGO site of today contains games, product descriptions, tons of pictures, and video. Among the video clips are television advertisements and mini-movies based on LEGO characters. I looked at 45 video clips in total. Most were TV commercials, but two were “movies.” (Of note: there were no commercials for Harry Potter LEGO and no videos for Space Police on the website.)

Few LEGO commercials actually show kids playing with the toys. The ads for the new LEGO games are the only ones that consistently show people using the toys. Of the five game commercials I watched, two featured a family consisting of a mom, dad, son, and daughter. The other three featured boys exclusively.

In other commercials, kids are pretty much absent. The most a viewer sees is an arm manipulating a toy. As with the print catalogues, one could assume that the absence of children means an absence of gender bias, but that is not necessarily the case. All of the commercials feature male voiceovers and a lot of the language typically used in toys marketed to boys (and highlighted in a word cloud post I wrote about toy ad vocabulary).

While it’s true that girls can disregard the voices and the vocabulary (and the fact that the majority of LEGO characters are male) and choose to play with a Ninjago Turbo Shredder or a “hero” with “double-barrel ice cannons,” the ads do not exactly lay out the welcome mat for females.

And then there are the movie clips: the bubbly cheerleader Minifigure who appears about halfway through this clip [clip no longer available] and the Ninjago clip [clip no longer available] where one of the male characters says, “We’re saving a girl? Is she hot?” (Nothing like a little sexism and damsel-in-distress imagery to sell toys.)

Studies estimate that anywhere from 76% to 80% of kids use the Internet at least once a week—including toddlers and kindergartners. According to recent Alexa figures, traffic on the LEGO.com site has far exceeded the numbers mentioned by Mr. Algermissen nine years ago. The site now gets 790,000 visits per day, resulting in 8.1 million daily page views. Back in 2002, visitors were spending an average of more than 45 minutes per visit on the site, a number that has not likely decreased. Not hard to see what these figures add up to—a lot of exposure to stereotypes for kids.

I am not anti-LEGO. As I have said before, I love the potential for creativity and problem-solving in these toys. I am just incredibly disappointed in a toy company that, as one of the biggest in the world, could play a leadership role in promoting healthy images of males and females, but chooses not to.


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