On Friday the Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei revealed that Lego had refused a bulk order of bricks from his studio. The bricks were to be used for a piece that he was going to show at the National Gallery of Victoria.
Lego says it has a long-standing policy to not knowingly supply its bricks for political uses. Yet there might be something else going on here. In an Instagram post, Ai drew a connection between Lego’s action and the recent announcement of a new Legoland to be opened in Shanghai. He later described Lego’s actions as “an act of censorship and discrimination”.
On the one hand, this ban means nothing in practice. The company may not approve of using its product for political works but Ai does not need Lego’s approval. There’s nothing stopping him from buying new Lego kits from retailers, rather than from Lego directly, then doing whatever he likes. If that fails, there’s a thriving global second-hand market for individual Lego pieces. And the artist has apparently been “swamped” by offers of donations of Lego since Friday.
When Lego declined his order the firm was no more engaged in censorship than was the Brisbane bookstore that refused to stock Campbell Newman’s biography as retaliation for cancelling the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards.
On the other hand, what we’re seeing here is a toy company struggling with the political implications of its own enormous cultural profile. Lego is a very particular toy company.
The global toy industry is dominated by a few big players. Mattel and Hasbro are two of the largest umbrella firms. Almost every toy brand and product you can think of – Fisher-Price, Barbie, Power Wheels, GI Joe, Mr. Potato Head, Transformers, Jenga, Monopoly, Battleship, Cluedo – falls under one of those two, giant publicly listed companies.
But last year the privately held Lego trumped Mattel and Hasbro to became the biggest toy company in the world.
Unlike its rivals, Lego is based around a single, iconic product: the Lego brick. And unlike its rivals, it professes a peculiarly utopian ethic about the nature of play and creativity that very much reflects the era and place in which it was founded: 1950s Denmark. The firm is still based in the small Danish town of Billund. It is still very much animated by its founding myths.
For instance, Lego avoids making realistic military kits or weapons because its founder, Ole Kirk Christiansen, didn’t want to make war seem like child’s play. Star Wars branded Lego has been central to the firm’s recent success. But as David C Robertson points out in Brick by Brick: How Lego Rewrote the Rules of Innovation and Conquered the Global Toy Industry, Lego nearly passed on the Star Wars license because “the very name … was anathema to the Lego concept”.
Robertson’s book leaves you with the impression of a company struggling to come to terms with the way Lego has been repurposed and reimagined by its own consumers.
In 2010 the firm reported that about 5 per cent of its sales come from adult consumers buying for themselves. This is certainly an understatement, given Lego’s growth since, the Lego Movie, and the fact that some parents are choosing Lego for their children partly for self-interested reasons.
Large scale Lego sculptures are a minor pop culture genre. Lego profits from this: the Architecture line, marketed to adults, taps into the ways consumers have been using the pieces unintended by Lego’s marketing team. That Ai Weiwei wants to use Lego for art is a reflection of its cultural symbolism. Ai is not a pioneer here. There are artists who work exclusively in Lego. Hobbyists make elaborate creations. There’s a rather incredible Battle of Waterloo.
Yet Lego is not a company well-geared for political controversy. At first glance their policy on controversial uses of their product is sound and clear. No politics, no religion, no military. Chinese democracy activists won’t get Lego’s approval, but then nor will Klu Klux Klan members. Lego wants to remain above the grubby material concerns of politics.
Such anti-political neutrality is obviously impossible. Whether they like it or not, Lego is a player in the cultural life of the human species, and in a way that any of Mattel and Hasbro’s competing brands are not. Lego profits handsomely from that status. Perhaps a truer form of political neutrality would mean paying no attention to the ultimate use of bulk Lego sales.
I suspect the refusal to fill Ai’s order is more a case of mindless adherence to their no-politics policy rather than a sop to the Chinese state. But if it is the latter, with this controversy they’ve found themselves in the invidious position shared by firms around the world who want to service markets in unfree countries like China.
Such relationships throw up serious ethical questions. Refuse to abide by the state’s rules and deny their oppressed citizens a product you believe will better their lives? Or obey and hope the benefits outweigh the harm of cooperation? You can imagine the tense meetings going on right now in Billund, as news of the Ai decision snakes around the world. They’re just a toy company after all.
Milton Friedman was correct when he said that the social responsibility of business is simply to increase its profits. But ours is a fallen world. Businesses are also participants in our political systems as much as our economies.
Sometimes that means toy companies have to take a stand on democracy in China. They have to choose between the Chinese state and its dissidents. Implicitly, inadvertently, perhaps even with the best of intentions, they already have.