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SALT LAKE CITY -- Once considered by some to be an all- boys club, LEGO Group is trying to appeal to girls with LEGO Friends -- a line of the toys marketed specifically to the fairer sex.
LEGO debuted the new line at the turn of the new year. It features five characters with five distinct personalities: Olivia, Andrea, Emma, Mia and Stephanie.
"We felt it was time to test assumptions that girls aren't interested in building and to breathe fresh air into a toy category filled mostly with prefabricated play experiences for girls," said LEGO CEO Jørgen Vig Knudstorp.
The line includes 23 pastel-toned products that cater to what LEGO calls girls' "desire for realistic role-play."
The project is one of LEGO's most researched ever, according to Nanna Ulrich Gudum, the company's senior creative director.
"In talking with girls and their moms, we understand that girls really want a LEGO offering that mirrors what the boys experience, but in a way that fulfills their unique desire for remodeling ... combined with realistic themes in community and friendship," she said.
The girls' line has been a long time waiting. In the 10 product characteristics set forth by Godfred Kirk Christiansen in 1963, three years after the company's founding, the products were "for girls and boys." The problem, though, was that usage skewed sharply in favor of males around preschool age.
The problem was exacerbated by LEGO's deliberate focus on boys for the past decade. The focus led to a 105-percent increase in revenue over the past five years and $1 billion in U.S. sales in 2010. In 2007, the company decided to focus on girls, who admittedly had been neglected in the building-blocks department in the past.
LEGO found that aesthetics were most important to girls and that while girls enjoyed building, they preferred to make storytelling a part of the process. The research led to the creation of the LEGO Friends world.
The world, though, has come under criticism for what some say reinforces gender stereotypes.
"Marketers, ad execs, Hollywood and just about everyone else in the media are busy these days insisting that girls are not interested in their products unless they're pink, cute, or romantic," reads a petition on change.org by the women's rights group Spark. "It's the environment and the message marketers have bombarded girls with for over a decade."
It is an environment that unduly influences girls to like what they think they are supposed to like, according to Stephanie Cole, one of the petition creators.
"I can speak from personal experience and assure you, LEGO, that girls do like minifigs," she wrote. "They also like Star Wars and Harry Potter, and they like being creative and making up stories that involve adventures and good and evil and things blowing up."
Women's rights groups and supporters of the petition contend that LEGO's new line marginalizes the needs of "the 50 percent," basically telling girls only the pastel paradise was acceptable to play with, rather than any of the other 545 products the company currently offers.
LEGO could not be reached for comment, but had responded in the past when Cole shared her opinion with the company.
"They thanked me for sharing Spark's thoughts on the new line of toys and respectfully disagreed, stating that 4 years of research had told them the that research had showed them ... this was what girls need in order to want to play with Legos, and that role play required them to make more ‘realistic' female figures," wrote Cole.
The online petition had garnered nearly 5,000 signatures as of Monday evening.
"LEGO already has a product for girls. It's called LEGO," said Debbie Spalding, who signed the petition.
Susan James also signed the petition. She said she played with LEGO blocks as a girl and became an engineer.
"When I was growing up, they weren't boy or girl toys," she said. "They just were toys for everyone."
Toys for everyone, but sold separately. Target, Walmart and Toys ‘R' Us all plan to sell the line in the U.S. Target, at least, will shelve the toys with other girls' toys, instead of with the more traditional LEGO sets. It remains to be seen whether the line will be worth the $40 million in marketing LEGO has spent, but Target spokeswoman Stephanie Lucy believes "it will do very well."