LEGO Bricks a Social Justice Campaign
Updated: Mar 31
This was written for CAS 842: Professional Communication Ethics in the Michigan State University Strategic Communications MA program.
This discussion post was written for CAS 842: Professional Communication Ethics assignment: Identify and assess a brand's involvement with social justice.
On June 2, 2020, Lego Group affiliate marketers were confused about an email from the brand’s shop-at-home affiliate team. In this communication, the LEGO Affiliate Team requested that affiliates remove, from websites and from marketing, a long list of LEGO kits—approximately thirty SKUs that included a variety of police- and firehouse-centric toys (Zahn, 2020; Roffman, 2020).
The same day, there was confusion on social media as to the nature of this gesture (Zahn, 2020). In particular, Brick Loft (a Lego fan site) tweeted a screenshot of the letter and directed a question asking LEGO to elaborate: what kind of message are you making here (as cited in Zahn, 2020).
Another tweeter stated these products still were available, but LEGO did not want affiliates to advertise or to market them (Zahn, 2020).
The next day, LEGO tweeted a clarification, stating the reports were incorrect and, to be clear, the brand’s intention was to temporarily pause digital advertising in response to “events in the US” (Palma, 2020).
Twenty-two minutes later, LEGO posted a note explaining the brand stands with the black community against racism and inequality. To that end, the brand pledged $4 million to organizations dedicated to supporting black children and educating children about racial equality (Roffman, 2020).
This strikes me as a brand campaign that was interrupted before it went public. The letter to affiliates broke before the social justice initiative, and LEGO executives were able to rescind the toy cancellation. This does not seem like a dog whistle, since the letter was sent internally.
But the clarification tweet, while clarifying “incorrect reports” presents like a brand-saving countermeasure. Technically, this example was canceled before it became a campaign; however, a brand-signed communication still takes life once it is disseminated.
In an era where virtually every major issue assumes a political complexion, the LEGO question prompted Donald Trump’s campaign manager, Brad Parscale, to tweet that it was “nuts” for LEGO to remove playlets feature police, firefighters, and emergency vehicles—and a White House kit. Parscale continued by tagging @Joebiden, asking what the 2020 presumptive Democratic nominee thinks about erasing cops (Dent, 2020).
Most brand statements are subject to suspension of belief, but companies must navigate the line between altruism and “inspiration porn” (Rao, 2020; Lu, 2017, p. 1).
My two cents: LEGO had the building blocks for a toy cancellation campaign but redirected in the face of public confusion and criticism. LEGO is an evergreen and wholesome brand. There is no way they would endanger the brand or enter a political framework. Hence, the clarification and the monetary donation.
This donation leads to the second discussion question: should LEGO benefit from donating $4 million?
When I initially read this part of the assignment, I was fully prepared to defend goodwill based on financial contributions. Positivity is positivity; brand contributions help financially and socially. Brands have the right of unfettered freedom of expression (Christians, Fackler, Richardson, Kreshel, & Woods, 2016). Public relations, marketing, and advertising roll with social justice like “a spoke in the wheel of comprehensive plans” (Steinreich, 2020, p. 3).
But in this example, it seems suspect for LEGO to benefit from the donation. One could argue that $4 million was the price tag for a “get out of public condemnation” card. My take is LEGO:
• Began implementing a toy ban
• Had an letter to affiliates leaked
• Sensed an oncoming brand catastrophe
• Tweeted a “clarification”
• Donated money to save face
One could argue LEGO sought special attention, and the public should be suspect (Christians et al., 2016). LEGO lacks the “interpretive sufficiency” in that the toy ban was not portrayed authentically; rather, this news was published by third-party social media (Christians et al., 2016, p. 105).
LEGO came across as the architects of insincerity—a brand that should not be lauded for extinguishing a fire that they started.
Christians, C.G., Fackler, M., Richardson, K.B., Kreshel, P.J., & Woods, R.H. Media Ethics: Cases and Moral Reasoning. Routledge.
Dent. A. (2020, June 4). Did Lego pull products featuring police and rescue workers? The Dispatch Fact Check. https://factcheck.thedispatch.com/p/did-lego-pull-products-featuring
Lu, W. (2017, September 5). What journalists can do better to cover the disability beat. Columbia Journalism Review. https://www.cjr.org/the_feature/journalism-disability-beat.php
Palma, B. (2020, June 4). Did LEGO pull police playsets from stores? Snopes. https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/lego-police-toys/
Roffman, M. (2020, June 4). Lego pulls advertising for police-related toys in support of Black Lives Matter. Consequence of Sound. https://consequenceofsound.net/2020/06/lego-police-black-lives-matter/
Steinreich, S. (2020, June 4). Making social justice communications part of your crisis PR planning. Agility PR Solutions. https://www.agilitypr.com/pr-news/public-relations/making-social-justice-communications-part-of-your-crisis-planning/
Zahn, J. (2020, June 2). Lego pulls back police playset affiliate marketing amid George Floyd Protests (updated). Toybook. https://toybook.com/lego-pulling-back-potentially-sensitive-product-amid-george-floyd-protests/