One week we’re reading about the outrage of Victoria's Secret marketing sexually suggestive memos on girls’ bottoms and a short while later the news is all about LEGO toys building a sexist, degrading, catcalling vocabulary into the stickers for its toys. It makes me want to whistle at the next manufacturer headed to a marketing conference and shout, “Hey babe! Stop treating females as playthings.”
ABC News reports that, Josh Stearns, father of two young sons living in western Massachusetts, posted photos of a set of LEGO stickers on his Tumblr account featuring a typical LEGO hard-hatted construction worker waving at an unseen passersby, shouting "Hey babe!"
As the mom of four sons who has spent the last 19 years stepping on the little blocks and prying mini men out of my vacuum, vents, and clothes dryer, I feel as if I’m banging my head against the LEGO brick wall. Didn’t I just recently praise LEGO for girl-friendly sets? They blew it that fast?
Well, they didn’t actually blow it that fast, because a closer look at the ABC story does show that the stickers in question were discontinued in 2010. According to ABC, Charlotte Simonsen, senior director at LEGOs corporate communications office in Denmark, e-mailed Mr. Stearns telling him the stickers had been licensed by a company called Creative Imagination, and had been discontinued in the summer of 2010. Creative Imagination stopped operations in December of 2012.
That doesn’t let LEGO off the marketing hook. Instead, it is a teachable moment for any manufacturer hoping to continue to sell to parents: Bad decisions can haunt a product. The stickers may have been discontinued several years ago, but the product bearing them is still on shelves.
That’s why toy manufacturers need to be more vigilant when screening their marketing and design staff and their decisions. It’s because moms like me write blogs like this when dads like Stearns reject an iconic brand and throw the product into the Tumblr.
"It was so ridiculous that they would be putting this out there for kids," Stearns told ABC News. On Tumblr, Stearns wrote that he was “disappointed” in the brand for it’s choice to put that kind of attitude-laced toy out there for kids.
LEGO, you have one of the most wholesome, intellectual, and parent-approved toys on the planet and you went there?”
When Stearns wrote to another LEGO executive asking about licensing, he received a response from Andrea Ryder, the head of the LEGO outbound licensing department, according to ABC.
"I am truly sorry that you had a negative experience with one of our products," Ms. Ryder wrote, adding "we would not approve such a product again."
Oh from Ryder’s e-mail to marketing’s ears, I would love to believe that is true. I’ve seen the San Diego Legoland building-block sculpture of the female firefighter preening in a handheld mirror while applying lipstick to the LEGO version of collagen puffed kissers.
I recently praised LEGO for finally expanding the gender segregated Friends themed blocks for offering a scientist and veterinarian. I overlooked the pink and purple color themes for the blocks in these sets. While LEGOS do promote STEM skills, something parents want for their girls, the company has consistently failed miserably to integrate female characters into traditionally male-dominated professional roles.
These sets stay on shelves and are handed-down or re-sold for decades and their biases and bad ideas go with them all the way.
Sure, you can peel off a sticker or buy a “boys’” set for your girl and mix and match until you work out the stereotypical kinds the manufacturer has built into the products.
However, if I ran a toy company that was fueled by imagination, I’d make sure that it was a higher-grade, richer mix in the first tank that’s factory installed. I’d rather see LEGO sets driven by something I don’t have to spend so much time repairing socially with my sons.