NYT: Lego Meta-Marketing
The Brilliant, Unnerving Meta-Marketing of ‘The Lego Movie’
Princess Leia and Harry Potter are dining in the eat-in kitchen of their midcentury modern home, sunshine bouncing off the white floors and refracting through the enormous aquarium that separates the kitchen from the den. “I need more pink tiles for my dining room!” their neighbor Hermione calls from her rainbow-colored split-level ranch home next door, which boasts three patios and two hot tubs.
“I wish we had purple bricks,” their neighbor Queen Amidala says as she parks her yacht next to her two-seater spaceship. “Maybe the Lego store has them now.”
I am powerless to those words and my daughters, ages 4 and 7, know it. So do the masterminds at the privately held Danish Lego group. They know how that first purchase of a small Lego brick box will invariably lead someone in my demographic to the Star Wars Lego collection at Target, where I’ll ogle the Millennium Falcon and babble on about the awesomeness of Ewok Village Leia. They know that my enthusiasm will lead my daughters straight to Heartlake City, the girlie Lego fantasy land that’s filled with bakeries, beauty salons, high schools and horse ranches (but no trains or traffic lights or firefighters or cops or civic infrastructure of any sort). And once we’re all caught in the tractor beam of the Lego store’s Pick A Brick wall, with its breathtaking kaleidoscope of specialty bricks and tiles for $14.99 a bucket, that’s when those Danes have us in their whimsical Scandinavian clutches forever.
No wonder I feel guilty as I’m driving my children to see “The Lego Movie.” I should be taking them on a long hike or handing out aprons and baking cookies. But we aren’t doing those things; instead we spend our weekends hunched over expensive plastic bricks, and now we’re going to watch them on the big screen. I have filled my daughters’ empty minds with a blind devotion to an indifferent commercial empire.
The movie begins. It’s about a Lego minifigure named Emmet, whose empty mind has been filled with a blind devotion to an indifferent commercial empire. Thanks to the evil mastermind known as President Business (and later, Lord Business), Emmet watches the same stupid TV show and listens to the same insipid pop song over and over again (“Everything is awesome! Everything is cool when you’re part of a team!”) and spends his weeks hunched over plastic bricks at his construction job.
It’s hilarious and unnerving. The movie’s cheery-dystopian tone, a giddy hybrid of “Idiocracy” and “Team America,” is perfectly calibrated to appeal to me and my children. And even though Emmet’s life seems hopelessly superficial, the hook to “Everything Is Awesome!” coaxes us into complacency. But by the time Emmet meets up with revolutionaries dedicated to seizing control of the means of production — well, actually, the “piece of resistance,” a mysterious block that holds the key to defeating their corporate overlord — I feel wary. Where does the second-largest toy company in the world get off offering up a Marxist parable about the mind-control perpetrated by corporate profit mongers, like the second-largest toy company in the world? The realization that Lego anticipated my wariness and addressed it in the movie makes me even more wary.
But then Batman shows up, and so do Dumbledore and Han Solo and a bionic pirate and Lando Calrissian, and they build spaceships and submarines and double-decker couches and, well, everything is awesome!
Branding may have finally reached its Mannerist phase. Where the old-fashioned brand earnestly embraced a core message that verged on religious doctrine (Apple’s “Think Different,” Nike’s “Just Do It”), the new brand is aggressively self-aware, exaggerated and self-referential to the point of collapsing in on itself; rather than imbuing the product with magical qualities, it embraces and undercuts those qualities in one swift gesture. The effect is to subvert consumer prejudices and preconceptions and make us forget that we’re caught in a commerce-focused undertow.
It’s a counterintuitive sleight of hand: By acknowledging that their central message is unbelievable or at least exaggerated, the branding masterminds gain our trust and bolster our faith in the brand. Will Ferrell, for example, promoted “Anchorman II” and Dodge at the same time by appearing on talk shows as Ron Burgundy and declaring that Dodge’s cars were “terrible.” Dodge sales spiked. (Ferrell also voices President Business.) In New Zealand, Burger King ran YouTube ads of two guys eating Burger King while complaining about YouTube ads. Nearly every Super Bowl ad this year referred to the fact that it was a Super Bowl ad. The brand — and the TV ad, the movie and the fictional spokesman — is hyperaware of its own fictionality and thus earns the right to simultaneously denigrate and elevate itself as divine.
These acrobatics can be found in Lego’s trajectory from maker of humble toys to a multibillion-dollar cross-platform marketing empire. First, a simple product — primary-colored interlocking blocks — is expanded to include a universe of specialized pieces and wildly popular faces from Star Wars, Harry Potter, Spider-Man and Dora the Explorer. The Lego empire has since grown to include (among other things) six Legoland theme parks, more than 50 video games, Lego Modular Buildings (complex models aimed at adults), a programmable brick called Lego Mindstorms and something called Lego Serious Play, a “radical, innovative, experiential process designed to enhance business performance,” which seems to boil down to making adult co-workers play with Legos.
The brilliance of “The Lego Movie” lies in providing every piece to the modern branding puzzle, including the surface-level subversion. Not only does the movie effectively celebrate its own enormous, diverse and endlessly seductive universe, not only does it rejoice in the importance of play and creativity, but it also mocks the faux-positivity of modern corporate schlock (“Everything is awesome!”). Eventually, Lego’s core brand message is threatened when President Business transforms into Lord Business, a manipulative mastermind who preaches the religion of Awesomeness to distract everyone from his dastardly plans to make creative play impossible.
In this way, “The Lego Movie” graduates to a new skill level in the game of branding, an approach that’s at once more grandiose and more pernicious than ever. Because by the end of the movie (without spoiling anything), Lord Business’s insistence on tyrannical control over his empire yields to the wildness and unpredictability of a child’s imagination. All of those sophisticated constructions and celebrity minifigures and universes within universes are nothing, we learn, compared to a simple box of (noncross-platform promotional) colorful plastic blocks in the hands of a child. That box of blocks proves that, even though you might feel average and empty-headed, in fact you are “the most important, most talented, most interesting, most extraordinary person in the universe.”
It should probably be a red flag that the most memorable line from “The Lego Movie” is pretty much the central message of any great marketing campaign: This product will deliver you from averageness. But somehow it still works. In the movie’s final moments, big tears stream down my face. I am weeping over a 90-minute infomercial.
In the new branding world order, you can introduce us to the man behind the curtain, be he Mads Nipper or Lord Business, and still deliver your core message without apology. And then you might be lauded as subversive for it.
Consider how “The Lego Movie” itself has been marketed and discussed. After earning almost $70 million in ticket sales over its opening weekend (Warner Brothers is reportedly already setting a sequel into motion), garnering critical praise almost across the board (96 percent on Rotten Tomatoes) and inciting cultural pundits to predict that Legos are going to be huge in the coming months, many critics are arguing that “The Lego Movie” is “much more than a 90-minute toy commercial.” According to a critic from The Los Angeles Times, the movie is brilliant and “postmodern” thanks to a rare case of “corporate latitude” — even though the movie’s message couldn’t be closer to the core message of Lego. Fast Company reported (somewhat breathlessly) that the producer Dan Lin and the Lego executive Jill Wilfert “put together a manifesto that they sent to everyone — the filmmakers, the studio, the company, everyone. And in that document is the line, ‘We are not making a commercial for the toys.’ ”
Then what happened? The filmmakers spent some time with the brand designers in Denmark. And, according to the article, they thought about “how to translate the principles of the brand into a story.”
See how this magic works? Not only can you make an elaborate infomercial that appears to (but doesn’t actually) undercut your corporate message, but you can also talk openly about translating a brand into a story, making it crystal clear that this is the film’s central purpose while directly denying that this is the film’s central purpose.
There’s no more drinking or not drinking the Kool-Aid, in other words. The Kool-Aid is raining from the skies and seeping into the groundwater. You can argue that the world’s most entertaining and subversive infomercial is still just an infomercial, but it will only make you sound like a spoilsport. (Isn’t “Star Wars” really just an ad for toys, too, in the eyes of Lord Business?) Maybe most of us no longer care about such distinctions. Movie or toy ad, critique or paid advertisement, party or promotional event, it’s all the same, so why bellyache over such trivia?
Or as Emmet tells Lord Business: “You don’t have to be the bad guy. You are the most talented, most interesting, most extraordinary person in the universe.” With enough cleverness and induced vertigo, the mad geniuses of branding never have to be the bad guys again. All they have to say is: You are special. The overpriced plastic blocks prove it.