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Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Love Of Lego Extends Beyond Building Things

(Jez Page/Flickr)

(Jez Page/Flickr)

The world’s most valuable toy company, Lego, no longer deals in just multicolored plastic bricks.

Lego has created a multimedia empire that runs on fans not only using Lego to build things, but as the basis for creating entirely new projects.

Sam Sullivan, 5, is pictured in the Here & Now studios. (Katherine Gorman/Here & Now)

Sam Sullivan, 5, is pictured in the Here & Now studios. (Katherine Gorman/Here & Now)

“There are people completely devoted to Lego — adults included,” said Here & Now media analyst John Carroll. “There’s one guy in Britain who has done a history of the United Kingdom in Lego. There are a whole series of what are called Brickfilms, which are stop motion animation films with characters made of Lego blocks.”

Consumers have emotional connections with many brands, Carroll says, but the emotional connection with Lego “takes it beyond a consumer brand and turns it into something else.”

Five-year-old Sam Sullivan, the son of Here & Now senior managing editor Kevin Sullivan, is a big Lego fan. When asked why he likes the little plastic bricks he says simply, “They’re fun.”

A Brickfilm by Sam and Kevin Sullivan:


  • John CarrollHere & Now media analyst and professor of mass communications at Boston University. He tweets @johncarroll_bu.
  • Sam Sullivan, five-year-old Lego fan and son of Here & Now managing editor Kevin Sullivan.





UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Hey, kids. Look, a whole new world to build - because Lego is here.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) This young boy had such fun...

HOBSON: Lego has come a long way since this TV spot from the 1960s. Once known for selling plastic interlocking blocks that could become anything, the company now sells plastic interlocking blocks that can become just one thing, like a replica of the "Star Wars" Death Star.


EVAN: And it's time for the Lego "Star Wars" Death Star. This is pretty heavy. I can't even carry this. So we're going to be...

HOBSON: That's a clip from EvanTubeHD. Young Evan has a huge following on YouTube, and in his videos he puts together these intricate Lego toys. The Lego Company has tapped into that type of social media to become the world's most valuable toy company. HERE AND NOW media analyst John Carroll joins us now to take apart the multicolored bricks of Lego marketing. John, welcome.

JOHN CARROLL, BYLINE: Nice to be here.

HOBSON: And by the way, we also have on the other side of the table the five-year-old son of our managing editor Kevin Sullivan. Sam is here. Hi, Sam.

SAM SULLIVAN: I watched him do lots of those buildings.

HOBSON: Evan, you did - you've seen a bunch of his videos?

SULLIVAN: Lots of them.

HOBSON: Lots of them. And tell us what you have in front of you right now.

SULLIVAN: Ninjago Legos, and he sometimes works on them.

HOBSON: You got a bunch of little Lego guys there on the screen, an old-fashioned green platform that Lego has been making for a long time, since I was a kid. Tell us about some of the stuff you've built on there.

SULLIVAN: I have this Earth Driller. And what happens when you move the front wheels...


SULLIVAN: ...the front part moves.

HOBSON: Turns as well. Well, so, John, you see this. You've heard EvanTubeHD. What is going on here? This has nothing to do with Lego, Right?

CARROLL: They say they're not affiliated with EvanTube and the Evan Industrial Complex. But it's amazing. He's got videos that hundreds of thousands, several million people have viewed on the Internet. He has these time lapse videos, so he's like the Usain Bolt of Lego world. He builds these really elaborate creations in three minutes through time-lapse photography, and it's impressive. He's sort of a role model for anybody who wants to go out and immerse himself in the world of Lego.

HOBSON: And what kind of an impact is he having on Lego's bottom line?

CARROLL: Legos is the most valuable toy company in the world, so I don't know how much Evan is responsible for. But it's all part of this sort of mix of marketing, social media and sort of cultural footprint that Lego has that really makes it a unique product.

HOBSON: And Sam, you watch these Evan videos, right? And then your dad tells us that you go right to him and say I want that one.


HOBSON: Yup. So like what have you seen Evan do that you decided I've got to have that one?

SULLIVAN: I saw him do the Temple of Light, and I don't have it. And I really want it, and it's such a big set.

CARROLL: You hear that, Dad?


HOBSON: I remember when I was a kid I went and got the Lego airport, which was really fun to put together. But the ones that they have now seem like they're much more involved and complicated. How many pieces would you say fit into that little drill car thing?


HOBSON: Well, now it's just one. But what - how many pieces did you have to put together?

SULLIVAN: I think maybe 300.

HOBSON: Three hundred pieces, wow. So it's pretty complicated to put together. John, are other toy companies doing this, relying on social media marketing?

CARROLL: Yeah, they're trying to. I don't think they're quite the phenomenon that Lego is. Lego's got a position in the culture that sort of combines adults and kids both. There's a lot of nostalgia for Lego, and parents look to buy it for their kids because they want the kids to have the same experience they did and have the same sort of relationship with the toy company.

So that's a big part of Lego's edge. There are other block companies out there that make sort of things similar to Lego, but they don't have the kind of traction or foothold that Lego does.

HOBSON: And this kind of cross-promotion is not new. It's been - it's done before with toys being made into TV shows or clothing lines or movies being made into toys and all of that. There's a Lego movie coming out in February. Here is a clip from that.


MORGAN FREEMAN: (As Vitruvius) My fellow master builders, including but not limited to, Superman, Wonder Woman, the Mermaid, Green Ninja, 1980-something space guy...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As Character) Hello.

FREEMAN: (As Vitruvius) ...Michelangelo, Michelangelo and the 2002 NBA All-Stars.

HOBSON: It seems as though Morgan Freeman manages to make his way into just about every movie that there is. But tell us how this social media marketing move has changed the way that toy companies really get connected with kids.

CARROLL: Well, there's a couple of things. First, there's licensing. So Lego is a master at licensing and picking out the right properties to affiliate itself with. And at that point, what you do is you turn this into a self-propelled marketing machine because the movie is going to create publicity. There are 17 new Lego sets that are accompanying the movie. So you're going to have this sort of infusion of new toys and new sets to build.

And that drives people to the Web to share their experiences, which drives more people to the new sets and et cetera, et cetera. So it is this marketing machine, basically, that has much more clout and much more reach now than it ever did before when it was just relying on traditional marketing, traditional mainstream marketing.

HOBSON: Does it work as well with adults, or is this something about marketing directly to kids in this way?

CARROLL: I think it probably works with adults. We could ask Sam's dad what he thinks. I think it works with adults because it's something that also they can share. There are all kinds of Facebook pages. There are all kinds of groups associated with this. This is really a community, basically, that Lego has been able to consolidate because of social media, because of digital media, that allows it to do things that it couldn't do before. You could have fan clubs, but you couldn't have the kind of instant communication that you have now.

HOBSON: All right, I have a couple of questions for this side of the table. Sam, are you going to go see "The Lego Movie"?

SULLIVAN: I think so.

HOBSON: Yeah. You excited about that?


HOBSON: And, Kevin, Sam's dad, how much money do you think you have spent on Legos over the years?

KEVIN SULLIVAN: I'm sort of afraid to go there.


CARROLL: Don't want to go on record, huh?

SULLIVAN: I don't want to go on record, yeah.

HOBSON: All right, all right. Well, so, John, I have to say, I'm not terribly surprised that companies have figured out how to do this with social media marketing. What does surprise me is that it's Lego. This is a company that has been around as a cultural force forever.

CARROLL: Right. And there are people who are completely devoted to Lego, adults included. There's one guy in Britain who has done a history of the United Kingdom in Lego. So he's done everything from the building of Stonehenge to the signing of the Magna Carta to the Black Death to the birth of Prince George last month. He's done it all in Legos.

And he's a cultural phenomenon. There are a whole series of what are called Brickfilms, which are people who make stop-action animation films with characters built out of Lego blocks. This is a painstaking process, but it's something that people are dedicated to. So there's an emotional connection with many brands, and there's certainly an emotional connection with Lego that goes beyond sort of it being a consumer good and turns it into something else.

HOBSON: Sam, what is your favorite thing about Legos? Why do you like them so much?

SULLIVAN: Because they're fun.

HOBSON: They're fun. And what's your favorite thing that you've ever made with Legos before?

SULLIVAN: The Earth Driller.

HOBSON: That guy right there. You brought it in.

SULLIVAN: The Earth Driller.

HOBSON: The Earth Driller.

SULLIVAN: The Earth Driller.

HOBSON: Yeah, that is pretty cool. All right. Well, Sam Sullivan, thank you so much for coming in.

SULLIVAN: You're welcome.

HOBSON: And, John Carroll, as always, HERE AND NOW media analyst, thank you so much for coming in.

CARROLL: My pleasure.

HOBSON: And Robin, we have one of Sam's videos at hereandnow.org. You can go find it there. And parents of young kids might recognize this tune as the theme to "Ninjago" TV show, one of the many cross-promotional platforms that Lego is using.


And we apologize if it drives you crazy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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  • Tim Rohe

    This story is really making me lose faith in Here and Now, since it was essentially nothing but a blatant Lego commercial. Jeremy Hobson started off the story by saying that Lego has gone from a company that makes multicolored blocks that could be turned into anything to a company that makes multicolored blocks that can be turned into ONE thing. This is exactly why Lego has lost its appeal for me and I will not be buying any Lego sets for my niece and nephew. My brother, father and I used to love using the relatively generic pieces to make whatever our imagination could think of. Now, you make whatever movie/TV tie-in you bought with a scant few purpose-built pieces that can’t be reused afterward and that’s it. I was hoping that maybe they would talk about how and why Lego evolved. Instead, it was just a shameless infomercial.

  • Vince

    I tried to dial in my usually uplifting, inspiring, challenging, and
    informative KUOW programming but it was somehow pre-empted by a
    completely uncritical and boosterish ad/infomercial for LEGO
    toys. At no point was there any critical discussion of the fact that
    LEGO has been transformed from a one set builds all platform for
    promoting childhood creativity and imagination to an each set builds
    only one thing milking machine designed to perpetually pull the money
    out of parents pockets via the pleas of their small children (like the
    one put on the radio telling us the next set he wants – with his dad not
    wanting to admit how much he has spent) all encouraged with multi
    platform advertising of movies, cartoons, etc. etc. directed towards
    children. I’m not shocked that LEGO has been ruined but I’m shocked to
    hear an ad for LEGO taking up time on KUOW.
    KUOW member
    Bellingham WA.

  • Shereen

    I wanted to call in and say that Craigslist has made the Lego empire in our home one of endless creativity, despite the fact that Lego sets can limit the imagination. My daughter makes the set unit, uses ideas from how pieces are put together to make cool parts of that set unit, then breaks it apart to make her own stuff. Sure, maybe this Here and Now piece was like an ad for Lego, but one cannot avoid the fact that it is a helluva cool toy.

  • johnlaudun

    How could the producers, and the presenters, completely miss the fact that one of the reasons that Lego has turned to so many specialized products, e.g, licensing various IP portfolios like “Star Wars,” is that the last standing Lego patent expired in 1989. (Wikipedia, people.) With the brick now generic, Lego has to compete in other ways. Failure to discuss this does indeed mean that “Here and Now” missed one of the central parts of the story.

  • Jason

    I am really surprised at the comments so far on this page. I did not think it was a LEGO commercial. I think that everybody missed the point of this and point of LEGO in general now. My children’s creativity is not limited to just the “one thing that the set is supposed to be” They take it and make their own creations out of it. Sometimes they even combine sets from multiple franchises and make an entirely new thing. Is this not what is being lamented in the comments. It is still a tool for creativity. As a secondary function in my house it serves and a communal point for me and my kids to relate on. I am a self admitted geek and I have many an otaku focus. Sometimes these are just a little too adult for my children, the oldest of which is almost nine. In partnering with these franchises LEGO, especially in the video games, has “cleaned up” a little bit and made the thing a lot more kid friendly. This gives us things to talk about and I can share my love of these things with them. I think this phenomenon is just another example of nerd culture becoming more of an accepted thing. It is a gateway into wonderful worlds of fantasy and imagination. I mean how many six year olds understand or appreciate Lord of the Rings for example. I can actually have a discussion with my son about this now, thanks to the LEGO LOTR video game. I think people are just too resistant to change and look back on the past with rose colored glasses.

    WHYY Member

Robin and Jeremy

Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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