Lego brand chief demolished over gender gaffe
Marketing manager forced into apology over “sexist” feature in latest issue of Lego Magazine
Marketing moguls at famous toymaker Lego are likely to be more careful from now about how they play their female-centric campaigns, after being roundly criticised for offering beauty tips to girls as young as six. Featured in the March/April edition of the US Lego Club Magazine, a spread titled “Emma’s Beauty Tips” showed a Lego figure of that name advising readers on how to improve their facial appearance.
“You, yes YOU are beautiful,” she said. “But if you’re ready to change up your look, read on for some tips and tricks on how to get the best haircut for the shape of your face. For heart faces, deep side parts accentuate your lovely eyes. Long, curly layers and thinned out curls and bangs also play up your angular cheeks.”
The spread was dissected on online parenting forums online before spreading rapidly through social media – with many commenter's arguing that girls aged between seven and 12 should not be concerned by their looks. Writing for New York Times parenting blog Motherlode, Sharon Holbrook – who spotted the spread in her 7-year-old daughter's magazine – said: “My little girl, the shape of her face, and whether her haircut is flattering are none of Lego’s concern. It wasn’t even her concern until a toy magazine told her to start worrying about it.”
For Lego’s executives, the article can be considered a significant own goal – and the fallout reflects the sensitivity required when trying to aim products at vulnerable people, such as children or the elderly. For many parents opposed to providing their children gender-specific toys, Lego has traditionally been the go-to product. However, this development shows how an unclear and poorly communicated message can stir up anger from consumers, affecting a company’s reputation. And given the reach of social media, that damage can accelerate extremely quickly.
“Emma's Beauty Tips” was linked to the Lego Friends sub-brand introduced in 2011. Aimed at young girls aged between six and 12, it includes sets for stereotypical locations such as a hair salon, a juice bar and a shopping mall. The Friends figures are also more “doll like” than the standard Lego mini figures that are sold with other sets, marking a diversification – if not much true diversity.
In a statement provided to online journal Mashable, Lego Systems senior director of brand relations Michael McNally expressed his regret over the feature. “We appreciate the reader comments on the latest Lego Club Magazine,” he said. “Our Club team is always striving for new ways to engage with Lego fans based on insights we gather from our Club audience. One particular thing that readers asked us to include was an ‘Advice Column’. In the most recent magazine, we attempted to deliver against this request by elaborating on a current Lego Friends storyline. We sincerely regret any disappointment it may have caused. We value this feedback, and have already shared with the Lego Club team in order to positively impact future stories.”
As reported on the blog of BoingBoing writer Cory Doctorow, some have put a satirical twist on Lego’s misfire – including a “Beauty Tips for Male Lego Executives” piece created by artist Elbe Spurling. Turning the offending piece on its head, Spurling’s counter-feature deliberately tars the Lego senior management with an old-fashioned stereotype.
Reaction to the gaffe has only compounded criticism of how Lego represents gender – sparked last year by its decision not to extend sales of a “female scientists set” beyond a limited-edition run. Months on from that controversy, Lego had the far wider – and potentially more damaging – issue of its environmental credentials to deal with, after Greenpeace slammed its marketing ties with oil giant Shell.