Text size

COPENHAGEN - Danish children know what to expect. In winter it will be cold, in summer there will be huge ice cream cones covered with chocolate or multi-colored candy sprinkles. A sign shaped like a tot with a shock of black hair indicates a toy store of the BR chain, and deep inside it awaits the most perfect toy in the world, their country's pride, Lego.

Lego, that plastic chest at the bottom of the full closet full of strange items: tiny people with no heads, sandwiches of thin slices of plastic that cannot be separated and lots and lots of blocks in bright colors. What a gift. How we escaped to that room, totally ignoring the generous grandmother and spent the rest of the evening putting together a formidable spaceship. The spaceship survived for two or three days in its official shape, as detailed on the instruction sheet, and then was destroyed by our little brothers and joined that chest, the endless creativity chest.

Endless? This is not the impression that emerges these days from a visit to the BR shop in downtown Copenhagen. The Santa Claus sitting in the window is still made of thousands of the tiny blocks, red and white, and behind him the shelves are full of the company's offerings, but this is very different from the way things were in the past. In the evolution of Lego, a family company that made wooden toys became a manufacturer of plastic toys, a Danish company became an international giant and an innovative and creative company became something far more ordinary.

The company, which began to suffer from an economic crisis at the end of the 1990s, has dealt with it until now by devaluing the uniqueness of its product, decreasing the creative element and turning it, in effect, into a marketing tool in the hands of the entertainment world. Lego is still a closely held company and therefore the financial information that it releases is limited, but the crisis in which it has found itself in recent years is known to everyone in the toy world. Despite the "Star Wars" series, which was the biggest hit in its history, and the Bionicle robot series, which has become an international success, the company is struggling to recapture its position as the leader in its field.

But it must not be forgotten that this is about Lego - and when a creative project does not work out well, it is always possible to take it apart and start again. Charlotte Simonsen, the company's spokeswoman, says that Lego is currently finding a balance between the marketing techniques of recent years and the company's "basic idea." This is already evident, she says, in the company's current catalogue, in which the wonderfully basic Creator series is included. The 2005 catalogue, which will come out in January in advance of the major toy fair in Nuremberg, is likely to include even more balance between the commercial and simplicity.

Like Pokemon and Barbie

Lego was founded in the 1930s in the small town of Billund in central Denmark. The first plastic blocks were manufactured in 1947 when Godtfred Kirk Christiansen, the son of the company's founder, Ole Kirk Christiansen, brought the first plastic molding machinery in the country to the town. Christiansen's experiment succeeded, and when he left the company in 1981, 92 percent of the families with children in Denmark owned at least one of his company's products. In Belgium, the proportion was even higher (96 percent).

The Lego company, whose name means "play well," set a standard with which hundreds of imitators failed to compete. The basic blocks became a model of simplicity and sturdiness and of a popular and high-quality toy. However, in 1998 the company lost 1 billion Danish krone (about NIS 600 million) and had to fire about 1,000 employees. The explanation that was given for the phenomenon: a failure to take into account the changes in the experience of childhood that have occurred since the 1940s.

In the change that brought about the crisis, the matter of brand licensing is particularly striking. From a leading brand in its own field, Lego became a gallery of other brands, which help to market it and at the same time market themselves. Harry Potter Lego, Star Wars Lego, Discovery Channel Lego and more scream from the shelves of the Copenhagen store. Ostensibly, there is nothing wrong with this. Half of the toys that are sold in the United States nowadays involve brand licensing, not to mention the breakfast cereal packages that are adorned with images of Pokemon and Barbie. However, in the case of Lego the foreign element detracts from the autonomy of the play.

In the distant past, Lego sets did not include any imposed contents. In the 1980s, the Lego Space and the Lego Fortress series appeared. These gave children a general framework for their play, but the contents remained the child's business. The children of the 1980s, who were influenced by the "Star Wars" films, built projects with Lego that were inspired by the films but were not in total obedience to their structured and detailed plots. Playing with items from the "Star Wars" model series is different, and few children will dare ignore the course of the external story or deviate from it.

Robbed of the blocks

An examination of the models themselves finds a change in the status of the familiar blocks, from which it was possible to make anything at all, in favor of very specific play pieces. The pieces that are included in the recent Racers series can be used only to put together a very specific racing car. From a set in the Sports series it is only possible to assemble an ice hockey ring. In the 1980s, too, a sheet was included in every package of Lego that contained instructions on how to build one sort of spaceship or another, but at that time the pieces were basic for the most part and useful for building new objects that were truly individual.

"The experience of free and creative play is disappearing from children's lives," says Susan Linn, who researches child psychology at Harvard University and is a leading critic of the strategies of marketing to children today. "If we indicate to children that there is only one way to do a certain thing, we harm their critical thinking ability. We take away from them the ability to create something new, something that was not there before." The new models of Lego, according to Linn, are heartbreaking. "We've been robbed, and our children are being robbed."

However, it is hard to blame Lego for the change in its approach in an age when its tiny blocks have to compete with X-Box and Nintendo. The children of the past lived in an environment where free play was a major element. Children today are exposed to a great deal of influence by the world of entertainment and marketing, as the experience of free play is being pushed to the sidelines. Isn't Lego just doing what it has to do in order to survive? Aren't Lego products like these preferable to the disappearance of the brand from the shelves?

"It is necessary to look at how successful the company is today," says Linn. "I don't have any official information about this, but I wouldn't be surprised if they aren't doing all that well."

Is it criticism of this sort that has motivated Lego to return to its previous line?

Spokeswoman Simonsen denies this and offers business reasons. Brand licensing, for example, has its disadvantages: "When a product is built around a movie brand, its success depends on the success of the movie; if the movie flops, the product flops. We wanted to be more in control."

An attempt to suit computer programs to the products, she says, dragged the company into an area in which it is not expert, and the definition of the children of the future was too sweeping: "There is a child who likes to build and build. There is a child who likes to build just once and then role-play with what he has built. We intend to produce both for the first kind of child and for the second." For the children of Denmark, Israel and the entire world, this might well be good news.