Two years ago, in 2011, 90 percent of Lego's consumers were boys. A tough statistic to swallow for those of us who grew up playing with Lego's gender-neutral buckets of bricks. But the statistic came straight from Lego, which was then focused on boys with franchised sets based on properties like Star Wars and The Avengers after weathering a disastrous period in the 1990s that left the company on the brink of collapse.
"Construction had never worked for girls, for whatever reason," says Garrick Johnson, a toy analyst for BMO Capitol Markets. "It took [Lego] four years of research to figure out how to address the girls' market, how to attack it the right way."
Lego Friends turned out to be one of the biggest successes in Lego's history. They're five adorable little dolls with distinctive names and storylines and sets that encourage girls to build karate studios, beauty parlors and veterinary offices. The line doubled sales expectations in 2012, the year it launched. Sales to girls tripled in just that year.
Johnson says the company carefully studied differences between how girls and boys play. "When boys build a construction set, they'll build a castle, let's say, and they'll play with the finished product on the outside. When girls build construction sets, they tend to play on the inside."
And research showed that girls loved little details, says Lego brand relations manager Amanda Santoro. "When we were testing this, we asked girls what would you like to see in a Lego school?" she said, as she showed off the line at Toy Fair, the massive industry event held each year in New York City. "Of course, they said an art studio. So we see a lot of detail here with the different paint canisters and the canvas here [a Friend] is creating."
David Pickett blogs about Legos at Thinking Brickly, where he's criticized the Lego Friends' gender implications. "Their legs can't move independently, so they move as one big block," he points out.
That's not the case with "minifigs" — the classic Lego minifigures with stocky little torsos, snap-off heads, and feet designed to click onto Lego blocks. Additionally, Lego Friends cannot turn their wrists.
"That sort of sends a message about what we expect women being able to do physically," Pickett notes.
Lego Friends triggered the ire of Joy Pochatila, a scientist and mother of two small girls. Her first reaction to the line was dismissive. "Why can't they just play with regular Legos? Why does it have to be girl-driven?" she wondered.
But Pochatila also was dismayed by how many of the regular sets revolve around male superheroes. "You don't see a Wonder Woman set," she points out.
Her husband, Davis Evans, is a staunch Lego defender. When presented with the minifigs' skewed gender numbers, he argued that the androgynous figures could be read as female. Pochatila said she'd prefer a few more specifically female figures, ones that reflect a real-life ratio. And it's hard, she admitted, to argue with Lego Friends' appeal, the complexity of their sets and their overall message of empowerment.
The success of the girl-centric Lego Friends has led to little girl dolls popping up in construction sets all over the place, including pink ones from Mega Blocks and Mattel's Barbie. That's great, say fans, for developing STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) skills for girls. But critics wonder, would it be so hard for Lego to develop — even market — toys for girls and boys to enjoy together?
LYNN NEARY, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary. Two years ago, 90 percent of kids playing with Legos were boys. You heard that right. Nine-zero. That's partly because Lego had turned from gender neutral buckets of bricks to selling heavily franchised sets such as "Star Wars" or "Avengers." For our series about kids and culture, NPR's Neda Ulaby looked at Lego's recent gamble on girls.
NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Today, Lego is the second biggest toymaker on the world. In the 1990s, it was on the verge of collapse. Then it retrenched with a focus on toys for boys. Garrick Johnson analyzes toys for BMO Capital Markets.
GARRICK JOHNSON: In the past construction had never worked for girls for whatever reason. The products were never really thought out very well.
ULABY: Johnson says sales of all construction sets have skyrocketed. Over the past five years they've grown by double digits. But Lego was unsure about how to sell them to girls.
JOHNSON: It took them four years of research to figure out how to address the girls' market, how to attack it the right way.
ULABY: What they came up with was adorable little dolls.
(SOUNDBITE OF COMMERCIAL)
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Lego Friends.
ULABY: Five of them with distinctive names, storylines and building sets, like a karate studio, a beauty shop and a veterinary office complete with a puppy.
(SOUNDBITE OF COMMERCIAL)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Let's put her on the scale. Take an X-ray, check her ears. Good girl.
(SOUNDBITE OF PUPPY BARKING)
ULABY: Lego, says analyst Gerrick Johnson, carefully studied differences between girls and boys' play.
JOHNSON: When boys build a construction set they'll build a castle, let's say, and then they will play with the finished product on the outside. When a girl builds a construction set, they tend to play on the inside.
ULABY: And girls love details. Tons and tons of little details. Amanda Santoro is a Lego brand relations manager. She showed off the line at Toy Fair, the massive industry convention, earlier this year. She said Lego sales to girls tripled in just one year, all thanks to Lego Friends.
AMANDA SANTORO: When we were testing this we asked girls what do you want to see in a Lego school? And, of course, they said there should be a art studio. So we see a lot of detail here with the different paint canisters. And of course we have a classroom with a science lab.
ULABY: But Lego Friends have critics, too, who analyze their gender implications. David Pickett critiques the dolls in his blog, Thinking Brickly.
DAVID PICKETT: Their legs can't move independently so they move as one big block.
ULABY: As opposed to the more classic mini-figures, or minifigs with stocky little torsos, snap-off heads and feet that click onto Lego blocks. Minifigs are mostly male. They feature more points of articulation. The Lego Friends - that is, the dolls for girls - cannot turn their wrists.
PICKETT: That sort of sends a message about what we expect women being able to do physically.
PETRA EVANS: (Singing) La, la, la, la, la, la...
ULABY: That is not particularly bothering the father of four-year-old Petra Evans. David Evans and his two daughters are playing with a Lego Friends set that's got a camping and biking outdoorsy theme.
DAVID EVANS: What do you need, hon?
EVANS: I want my bike back.
EVANS: Oh, I'm sorry and you were probably upset you can't put hands on the handlebars, weren't you?
EVANS: She can't turn her arms. She doesn't have as many points of articulation. There's going to be a lot of that in Legoland.
ULABY: When the Friends line first came out. Petra's mom, Joy Pocatella, says she immediately recoiled.
JOY POCATELLA: Well, why can't they just play with regular Lego? Like who cares? Why does it have to be girl-driven?
ULABY: But Pocatella came to realize how many of the regular sets revolve around male superheroes.
POCATELLA: I mean, you don't see, like, a Wonder Woman set.
ULABY: Pocatella's husband is a staunch Lego defender. He argues that some of the figures are kind of androgynous. Maybe you could pretend they're female. Pocatella does not buy this assumption.
POCATELLA: Well, why couldn't they have, like, one girl cop?
EVANS: They might. What's going to be funny, though, is you're going to have...
POCATELLA: Why can't the chief be a woman?
ULABY: Assuming the neutral figures read as male, the Lego City sets have 88 males and 11 females, by NPR's count. Castle sets have 19 males and four females. Trains don't have any females at all. Eventually, David Evans conceded that his girls will have a hard time finding real life ratios in regular Legos.
EVANS: That's true. If you've got one mini-fig or two minifigs. Odds are, yeah, probably zero.
ULABY: But the girl-centric Lego Friends are one of the biggest successes in Lego history. And suddenly, little girl dolls are popping up in construction sets all over the place, including pink ones from Mega Blocks and Mattel's Barbie. That's great, say fans, for developing STEM - science, technology, engineering and math skills for girls. But would it so hard, critics wonder, for Lego to develop - even market - toys for girls and boys to enjoy together? Neda Ulaby, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.