LEGO Fusion: A new brick in the gender divide

LEGO’s new Fusion line may meld real & digital worlds, but it still divides our boys & girls.

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A LEGO ‘Universal Building Set’ ad from 1982, depicting a boy and girl playing together with the same LEGO. Crazy.

I had high hopes when I was alerted to ‘LEGO Fusion’. It was the word ‘fusion’, the combining of two distinct entities into one, that piqued my interest.

LEGO have rightly had a lot of flack for creating and marketing their product separately to boys and girls in recent years, especially given their history of previously being a universal toy. So would this new fusion line finally reunify the divided markets and be aimed at both?

The word fusion also brings to mind various scientific processes and ideas, most notably nuclear fusion. Could this be a line linked specifically to STEM fields, in which female inclusion and engagement remains an ongoing issue.

Don’t be silly.

Turns out the ‘fusion’ aspect is the connection of physical building with virtual construction, in the form of smartphone & tablet apps and associated physical sets. The virtual aspect appears to be inspired partly by The Sims and Civilisation – but mostly by Minecraft, the open world virtual brick building phenomenon. LEGO have stated that they wish they had invented Minecraft. In fact, it was created by a games designer from the Danish toymaker’s Nordic neighbour Sweden. Minecraft also has a large number of female enthusiasts (though evidence suggests they may often not admit to being female, given how women are often treated in online & gaming circles – but that’s another issue!).

So LEGO Fusion may not be the revolutionary science based line I imagined (I actually have no idea what that could be, but I was waiting to be dazzled), but still – it’s an innovation for the company to move its core product – bricks – into virtual space. Good for them. And it’s a concept clearly able to be enjoyed by boys and girls.

But then I saw this promotional video for it. It effectively conveys the blending of virtual and actual space, focusing on a child exploring the worlds that the line consists of.

First there’s Town Master, where you get to be a town planner/ruler. That’s followed by Battle Towers, a virtual war space where your constructed ‘Battle Tower’ has to fend off an enemy invasion. Then there’s Create & Race, where you build cars and race them. As ideas, they all look and sound pretty cool. But, there’s something important missing from the marketing hyperbole. Girls.

And then it happens.

Two girls are shown playing on the other side of the table from the boy. What are they doing – planning a town? Creating a battle tower? Engineering their own race car?

Nope.

The girls have their own app and set, within the gender ghetto of the LEGO Friends line. And what do the girls get to create in their fusion space? Their line is called Resort Designer, and they have to create… a dream beach resort.

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In LEGO Fusion, boys build towns and engineer machines, while girls get to build… a resort

So rather than fusion, we have division & limitation. Physicist, oceanographer and broadcaster Dr. Helen Czerski memorably responded on Twitter to the LEGO Fusion ad with “Ick”.

Dr. Czerski continued “Obviously, all girls are interested in is holiday resorts, while boys get on with building our cities.”

The whole reason advertising exists is that it works. If it can persuade us to part with our cash for a product, then it stands to reason that the reality it depicts is also convincing.

There’s nothing stopping you – or I – from countering these messages ourselves to our kids, but we’ll never be able to fend them off entirely. The seed will be planted, that will potentially grow into deep rooted conviction that may see a girl choosing very early on in life not to embark on a life in science, technology, engineering or manufacturing, and may lead to an adult male choosing not employ a woman in one of these fields, because from childhood, without even realising it, they have learned that these areas are inherently male.

I don’t think LEGO is evil, that it is trying to socially engineer a world where women are directed to a pastel coloured inconsequential cul-de-sac while the men take care of the important stuff. They’re just trying to sell their plastic bricks. But doing it by entrenching gender segregation, and limiting the life choices of our girls, is simply wrong. I can’t say it plainer than that.

Imagine, if instead of gender, LEGO based their marketing around race. Imagine if the Fusion ads showed white people (as they do) playing with the Town, Racing, and Battle lines – and then depicted stereotyped minorities in and using sets based on sports, hospitality, or a factory? Imagine if they produced market research that showed that this was what the minorities in question wanted. That they were just supplying demand. It would rightly be labelled as racism.

Oh god, I do hope I haven’t given them a new marketing angle to try out…

Back in the real world, my daughter will continue to play with her hand-me-down LEGO, that hails from the time when it was a universal toy. And maybe when LEGO pulls back on the gender based madness, we’ll hand over some real money for new LEGO.

As long as it remains backwards compatible with the concept of universal building.

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The sold out, universally acclaimed, LEGO Ideas Research Institute. Hopefully not the last you’ll see of it.

One set I would have parted cash with was their much heralded Female Scientist set.

In a bad month of gender news for LEGO, they also revealed that this set, which I didn’t even get a chance to buy, is in fact a limited edition.

Currently sold out, while LEGO have said they are going to release more stock, there is no indication that this means they will actually manufacture any more.

If you – like me – think this obviously popular set should be mass produced, then please sign this petition created by Melissa Atkins Wardy (Author of “Redefining Girly”, owner of Pigtail Pals & Ballcap Buddies).

Apparently, a new LEGO design must achieve sales of £106,000 to break even. At £15.99 a pop, this set needs to sell about 6,600 units – so the petition needs to reach at least that figure to show there’s a viable market for it (though the fact it achieved 10,000 public votes to get made in the first place should be enough!).

So please sign and share!

Girls and boys toys: Is the toy industry demonised for just supplying demand?

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Are there girls and boys toys? Our X-Men Barbie – if she was an actual toy (as opposed to Beach Barbie wearing a Storm circa ’96 outfit), would she be categorised as a boy’s or girl’s one?

If the toy industry were at all sympathetic to our issues with the false idea that there are girls and boys toys, we wouldn’t have to keep complaining. But is it fair to criticise them?

Recently, kids brand consultant – and father of 2 girls – Steve Reece (@nevetseceer) wrote this piece on it. Let’s just say it lost me at labelling those like myself, who disagree with the concept of girls and boys toys, as ‘bandwagon jumping opportunists’ – and it went downhill from there. I shared it on Twitter, tagging Steve, and he & others responded.

Rarely does anything useful or constructive result from people with entrenched opposing opinions debating online. This was no exception.

As the twitter back & forth ensued, there were many of his points I failed to adequately address or respond to. Other people, notably scholar Elizabeth Sweet, had a more meaningful contribution. Here’s my tweet, followed by a sub-edited version of the ensuing conversation about girls and boys toys.

Carrie Proctor: Does Steve Reece not see that children pick certain toys because they’re taught to do so by society?

Steve Reece: I agree with you…kids choose toys based on societal influence…majority of parents see boys and girls toys still

Carrie Proctor: That’s why we try to get toys for our daughter in bright primary colours. She’ll pick her own favourite one day. 🙂 (Favourited by SR)

Enter Dr. Elizabeth Sweet, a Postdoctoral Scholar whose current research focuses on gender and children’s toys. So far more qualified than me/most in this area.

Dr. Elizabeth Sweet: My research finds that toys are far more gender segregated and stereotyped now than ever before. Simply not true that toys have always been so gender defined nor that they have to be.

My initial tweet also provoked this response from freelance writer Lisa Granshaw.

I then noticed that Steve had tweeted a response to those criticising his article, and the conversation shifted over to that thread.

(ICYMI – Steve’s hashtag reads: Reflecting current reality, not saying it should be that way, just that it is)

Elizabeth Sweet initially responded (before I butted in).

Elizabeth Sweet: Actually, not a reflection of current reality if you look at demographic & attitudinal measures in re: to gender. I would revise this piece I wrote in 2012 to say that gendering today is far more extreme than in ’50s.

Steve Reece: Really…? Difference between what people say hypothetically versus Behaviour measured by what sells…?

Elizabeth Sweet: When you only offer people one choice (e.g. highly gendered toys), is it surprising that they choose it?

Me: (To Steve) Chicken/Egg. They buy what you sell. I’d buy more female Star Wars & superhero toys if sold.

Steve Reece: You may buy, but are there enough like minded to justify tooling etc? Toy companies supply to demand.

Me: How do you know girls won’t buy/play Star Wars/Marvel, when they’re labeled as ‘boys’ brands?

Elizabeth Sweet: Toy companies are actively shaping demand by offering few and narrow choices vs. responding to it.

Steve Reece: Are there no female characters in those films? Male character sell by far most toys…

Me: Black Widow practically airbrushed from most Avengers merchandise; same with Leia and Star Wars. And both clearly defined as ‘boys’ brands by licensees and retailers, therefore excluding girls

Steve Reece: Commercial reality = if paying major license fees toy companies want every product that will sell.

Me: In the meantime, risk averse toy companies are excluding girls. Where’s the child development in that?

Steve Reece: Hard to stay in biz if don’t sell products made…no child development then?

Me: ICYMI – “Opportunist commentators have jumped on this bandwagon to blow their own trumpets, and… advance their own ends.” Nice Steve Reece.

Steve Reece: Demonising toy industry which positively contributes to development of billions of kids globally, for supplying demand. Also nice.

Me: What’s positive for girls who think science sets, doctors kits, or toolboxes are for boys – because they’re not pink? Not just toy industry – clothes, books, magazines, it’s a problem with most things being sold to kids.

Elizabeth Sweet: Clearly there is a demand for something different…this sold out immediately.

Me: (to Steve) I will never buy into your argument that sexism is justified to sell toys. Is racism too? The removal of Gamora from so much Guardians of the Galaxy merchandise is appalling. But you think that’s ok?

And there the conversation ended, and I’m glad it did as there was nowhere new I was able to take it.

Pretty depressing.

If this is the attitude of the toy industry to our concerns with the notion of girls and boys toys then we have a long way to go, no matter what lip service they pay to our issues with their gender categorisation, and screening of licensed characters by gender – such as the aforementioned cases of Princess Leia, Black Widow, and Gamora being absent from a large chunk of movie tie-ins.

The citing of market research and of responding to consumer demand – without acknowledging the industry’s role in skewing those results through their marketing, or creating that demand – is frustrating.

These companies choose to create products for children, which as far as I’m concerned means they have a responsibility to not only make a profit, but – at the very least – to not negatively impact our children’s lives. It’s not much to ask, and the two things are not mutually exclusive.

And frankly, the idea that the likes of Hasbro, Mattel, or Disney might go out of business if they and retailers sorted and labelled toys by type or function instead of gender, is laughable.

But these industry behemoths do need to evolve their offering, for their own sake. Take Barbie, the queen of the pink aisle. Her global sales have significantly dropped in four of the last five quarters, and for an even longer period in the US (about 2 years). Some of Mattel’s initiatives, like the Barbie Project are interesting. Others, like putting her on the cover of a Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition, are troubling.

However, if the choice really is as Steve Reece claims, between these companies survival or our children’s positive development, then I’ll happily wave bye bye to Optimus, Mickey, and Barbie.

The toy industry’s ability to generate profit does not supersede our children’s rights to grow up without having profit-motivated limits placed on their imaginations, aspirations, and ambitions. But there is no reason the removal of these limits and the industry’s profits cannot happily co-exist. If anything, it will become necessary for both parties to flourish.

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Oh, for another perspective on the issue of girls and boys toys, please read this excellent post from someone who is at the frontline of all this – working at a toy shop! His point is a very perceptive one that has lead me to question how I would shop as a parent in this situation.

LEGO Adds New Female Scientist Toys After Fans Demand Them

As someone who was heavily involved in the campaign to raise awareness of this project, I’m stoked that they’re finally a reality. 😀

7 ways for Hasbro to sell more Star Wars toys (hint: girls)

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My daughter giving her Hasbro Leia doll (courtesy Emily) a blow-dry

Hasbro, the primary Star Wars toys licensee, has a brand developer vacancy for their Star Wars line.

Like Disney, they still see Star Wars as a boys brand – but using Hasbro’s job ad as a guide, here are 7 ways the new Brand Manager can impress their new employer by improving sales, decreasing costs, and ultimately raising profits – as well as addressing the gendered marketing issue.

In fact, it’s the solution:

‘The primary Duties & Responsibilities of the Star Wars Brand Development role:’

1. Finding innovative ways to grow higher margin businesses.
A: An innovative way to grow higher margin businesses would focus on marketing Star Wars to girls as well as boys. This will increase sales with minimal additional costs.

2. Drive product innovations to better meet consumer demands.
A: Innovate by creating Star Wars products with girls in mind, meeting their additional consumer demand. Also market the entire brand to both girls and boys – girls will also buy existing products that are currently (but erroneously) deemed as ‘boys’ toys, and boys will purchase many products you might think of as being for ‘girls’.

3. Develop overall go-to-market product strategy.
A: The strategy needs to focus on the fact that Star Wars is a brand that appeals to both boys and girls, as well as their Star Wars fan parents. Create product for, and market the brand to, all of them.

4. Find ways to decrease development costs and gain efficiencies.
Decrease development costs by marketing current products to girls as well as boys. Efficiencies would be gained by selling an already existing product to a new market with minimal additional cost.

5. Keep up to date on modern manufacturing trends, technologies and competitive practices.
A: Be competitive – and modern – by marketing Star Wars to girls as well as boys.

6. Work with global brand strategy & marketing team to develop special and exclusive products.
A: The global brand strategy for the development of all special and exclusive products must include marketing the Star Wars brand to girls as well as boys, to increase sales.

7. Become the global insights expert and leverage learning across product lines.
A: An insight that Hasbro must learn: The Star Wars brand is in an almost unique position as (despite Hasbro’s insistence that it’s a ‘boys’ brand) it actually appeals to girls too. Additional product made with girls in mind can certainly be produced, but the overall brand is unisex. In addition, today’s parents would have grown up with Star Wars, back when it had overt cross gender appeal, so parents of boys and/or girls will be be primed to purchase product for the daughters as well as their sons. Hasbro should be including, rather than excluding girls from the Star wars brand, as it will lead to increased sales for the entire line. 

OK, it’s not really 7 ways – they all have basically the same answer: Girls.

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‘I am the way’

But you have to admit, the plan has a singular clarity to it.

The successful applicant can now arrive as saviour, with a bold game changing strategy that benefits all.

Or to put it another way, the Chosen One can finally fulfil the prophecy of bringing (gender) balance to the Force.

I posted an earlier version of this piece here.

Despite #WeWantLeia, Star Wars is still a ‘Boys’ only brand according to Hasbro

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My daughter giving her Hasbro Leia doll a blow-dry

Not only does the Disney Store have Star Wars pigeon-holed as a boys only brand, it seems that main toy licensee Hasbro does too.

In this job ad (courtesy of Natalie Wreyford and , Hasbro states it has “immediate need for a detail-oriented, brand developer… for Star Wars” their “Boys Licensed brand”.

Sigh.

The ad lists seven key aspects of the job, but reading them it seems to me that a plucky applicant could successfully address each of these bullet points by addressing the gendered marketing issue too.

So, if you’re a detail-oriented, brand developer candidate – who is “proactive”, “responsive”, “creative”, and with “analytic based judgement” – looking to make a name for yourself, you could try this approach. I am after all a marketing guru (:s).

Primary Duties & Responsibilities of Star Wars Brand Development role:

1. Lead cross-functional teams to execute key brand initiatives, including finding innovative ways to grow higher margin businesses.
A: An innovative way to grow higher margin businesses should involve marketing Star Wars to girls as well as boys.

2. Drive product innovations through the system to better meet consumer demands.
A: Innovate by creating Star Wars products intended for girls, meeting their additional consumer demand, and market the entire brand to both girls and boys.

3. Develop overall go-to-market product strategy.
A: Create product and market the whole brand to both boys and girls.

4. Partner with global supply chain to identify programs to decrease development costs and gain efficiencies where applicable.
A: Market existing products to girls as well as boys.  Efficiencies gained by selling an existing product to a new market with minimal cost.

5. Maintain current knowledge of modern manufacturing trends, technologies and competitive practices.
A: Be competitive by marketing Star Wars to girls as well as boys.

6. Collaborate with global brand strategy and marketing team in the development of all special and exclusive products.
A: Suggest the global brand strategy includes marketing Star Wars brand to girls as well as boys.

7. Become the global insights expert and leverage learning across product lines.
A: Your insight should involve the need for marketing Star Wars to girls as well as boys. If not, this should be learned.

So there you go. You’ve got that application nailed! Why not apply using this as your template? If you can’t beat them, join them. Then beat them.

Failing that, tweet them at @HasbroNews, or email them at hasbrobrandpr@hasbro.com, and let them know that Star Wars is a galaxy for girls too – because they obviously didn’t get the #WeWantLeia memo.