A PR Lesson from Lego: Don’t Wipe the Smiles off Your Customers’ Faces

Jun 24, 2013

For inanimate plastic figures that stand only 1.2 centimeters tall and weigh next to nothing, LEGOs “Minifigures” have been turning some serious heads.
Several news outlets recently reported on a New Zealand study which found the number of LEGO Minifigure angry faces is increasing at an alarming rate, outpacing the number of happy or smiling ones. Over the last 20 years, the proportion of Lego’s happy faces has fallen from about 80% to 50%. While the study doesn’t correlate this finding to any data suggesting a change in children’s behavior, the study’s chief architect, Dr. Christopher Bartneck of the University of Canterbury, raises an important question: what could be happening in a child’s brain as they’re exposed to subtle negative cues – cues that infuse their creative gameplay?

Be they happy, angry, sad or silly, Minifigures have come a long way since their 1978 release. The earliest Minifigs’ bodies were often painted a single color and their cheery yellow faces looked like the millions of smiley-faced emoticons we send in emails and text messages today (and I remember they used to drive my parents crazy whenever they stepped on them).

However, as the 1980s rolled into the 90s and beyond, the complexity and diversity of the figures increased. Tied to movie franchises like Harry Potter, Pirates of the Caribbean and of course, Star Wars, Minifigs became doll-like collectibles. They also evolved from their racially-neutral-but-jaundiced color to include Native Americans in 1997 (complete with a first-ever nose) and black basketball players in 2003.

All this healthy diversity and embrace of realism is exactly why LEGO’s execs aren’t too concerned.

“Fantasy role play revolves around the natural tension between good and bad, which is a natural part of a child’s development,” said a spokesperson for the company. “Since 1989, LEGO Minifigure expressions have evolved to reflect different emotions consistent with the feedback we hear from children who want more authentic details with which to carry out their story play.”

Fair enough. But with Christmas in July promotions less than a month away (17% of Americans took advantage of those bargains last year), will parents think twice about how their own childhood toy has grown up? Or about  how people, like our playthings, lose their innocence and magic?

While I’m not expecting this story to damage the Lego brand or undermine Minifigures’ popularity, there is a branding and PR lesson to be learned. It’s likely LEGO was unaware of these subtle face-based changes – beyond the above corporate PR response. It took the objectivity of an academic to measure a possible change in message and pose questions related to that change. In a sense, this is what all solid public relations agencies should be doing. They must have the courage to objectively observe their client and note changes, however unintentional, in their marketing message. They also must:

  • Bring these findings to the attention of C-level executives
  • Offer creative, timely and relevant suggestions on how to bring the message back on track

Maybe LEGO is taking the University of Canterbury’s study more seriously than we know. Perhaps a review performed say, in 10 years, will show a decline in the number of angry, aggravated and unhappy LEGO Minifigures.

At 4 billion strong, Minifigures and the Lego brand have had a profoundly positive impact on millions of children across the globe. Let’s hope Lego takes this miniature PR blip into consideration and continues to keep the smiles on its customers’ faces.

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