Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Morals, Economics, and Lego

Our family loves Freakonomics. My wife and I, along with our 20-year-old daughter, have read the book. My wife and I, along with our 11-year-old daughter, listen to the podcasts in the car. In fact, our 11-year-old has decreed that we’re not allowed to listen to the podcasts without her.

One of the things I love about Freakonomics is that the two Steves explain that morality is how you want the world to work, while economics explains how it actually does. I think the word “morality” sounds a little heavy-handed for what I’m going to talk about here, so I’ll change it to say that idealism is how you want the world to work, while economics explains how it actually does.

And with that out of the way, I want to talk about Lego.

Yes, Lego. I did Lego before Lego was cool. In 1961, when my family went to the toy department at Bamberger’s in Newark to replace the set of American Bricks that my sister and I had played with, and stepped on, and broken, for years, I saw a display for this new stuff I had just seen on a TV commercial a few days earlier. It was Lego. We bought a set, and soon we were Lego Evangelists, converting all of our friends from American Bricks and Kenner Sets and Tinkertoys to these new bricks that snapped together and locked in place…and that didn’t shatter when you stepped on them.

The Lego sets of the 60s, 70s, and even the 80s, were, as one might say these days, “gender neutral.” Girls and boys played with them and built things with them. But the market started to change in the 90s, and Lego seemed on the verge of collapse. What saved them was licensing characters and concepts from popular movies like Star Wars or Harry Potter or The Avengers. This brought them back from the brink, but this return to success meant that 90% of the kids playing with Lego were boys.

Lego had a huge problem on their hands. They wanted girls to play too, but construction toys seemed like a hard sell for girls. So they did a little research. Actually, they did a lot of research…and came out last year with the Lego Friends sets, which have become wildly successful with girls.

And this is where idealism and economics…or rather idealism and reality clash.

I know my share of women who are appalled at the “all pink and girly” sets that Lego has designed, and see them as consigning girls to the “pink and girly ghetto.” But if you’ve done your market research, and found out that this is what they really want, are you consigning them to a ghetto, or are you tapping into an unmet demand?

They also complained saying that maybe if the ratio of male to female “minifigs” in the regular city sets were closer to 50/50, more girls would be playing with them. This is a big maybe, however, and one based on wishful…or rather…idealistic thinking. After all, if that was really all it took, Lego would've done it, and at far less cost than creating a whole new line of sets.

When I tried explaining Lego’s market research to some of my more vocal female friends, and tried to convince them that maybe it showed that most girls weren’t interested in more female minifigs in the regular sets, but sets specifically themed to what they were interested in, the response I always got was along the lines of “But I’m a girl, and I enjoyed playing with regular Lego!”

Did you ever try explaining to someone that even though their experience is valid and true, they’re an outlier, and not representative of most people in their group? It’s not fun.

And then I saw an old headline in the local paper that gave me a new way to explain this. It stated that women still earn less than men.

Now wait a minute. For the 27 years I’ve known my wife, she has always made more than me…and by a significant margin too. Shouldn’t the fact of our experience as a couple negate the carefully-gathered statistics that the newspaper cited?

I didn’t think you’d buy that. So then, if it’s easy to accept the fact that my wife and I are outliers when it comes to who earns more, why such a hard time accepting the fact that even though you, as a girl, enjoyed playing with “gender-neutral” Lego, most girls want something a little more girly? Why such a problem admitting that the results of Lego’s research are valid, even though it goes totally against what you wanted to see? It’s not denying the truth or validity of your experience, it’s simply saying that most people aren’t like that. Accepting that means putting aside your idealism for reality.

Lego could’ve gone broke chasing after an idealistic version of how kids should play. Instead, they actually asked kids what they wanted, and gave it to them.

Seems to me that that’s a great example of giving girls a voice…even if what most of them want isn’t what you would’ve chosen.


  1. Well said. But you are still going to catch hell for it, I predict.

  2. Oh, I figure I'll get hammered too, but it needed to be said.

    On a related note, we went to my aunt's funeral last week, and I saw people I hadn't seen in about 40 years. People I grew up with who grew up to be teachers, accountants, financial planners, engineers, architects, doctors, nurses, ministers, statisticians, lawyers etc. All middle to upper middle class people, and all African-American…and all raised in the "golden age" of the 1970s when changing attitudes and generous financial aid from schools, the federal government, and state governments, meant that we could follow our dreams to some extent, and go beyond even what our middle class parents had done. These people all lived in "nice neighborhoods" drove "nice cars" and wore "nice clothes." You wouldn't find any of their kids wearing pants that hung down off their asses.

    But then again, people often confuse high concentration with high numbers. Stats say that roughly 30% of blacks live in poverty, but that means that roughly 70% of us *don't*. Put simply that means that while 30% of us may live in "the hood," most of us *don't*. So while there may be a higher *concentration* of us there…more of us together in one place there…there are actually more of us *in numbers* spread out among the "nice neighborhoods" in the suburbs.

    Anyway, my point, and I do have one, is that after the funeral, when we all came back to the church to eat, the food being served was traditional African-American fare like fried chicken, green beens, seasoned rice, biscuits, and a few other things I can't recall. Later on, my wife commented on these people who had obviously done well for themselves eating "poor people's food."

    I responded that this wasn't necessarily "poor people's food," it was the food they grew up on. It was "comfort food." It was food that the planners were pretty sure that everyone would like. This was not a place for tofu and lentils.

    Was serving this stuff playing into a common stereotype about us? Ya, you betcha. Was it stuff that everyone liked? Ya, you betcha again. Sometimes the "stereotype" is spot on.

    And what would've happened had the planners served what they thought that people of our social status *should* like? What would've happened had they served tofu and lentils and veggie burgers?

    It would've sat there, uneaten, while we all formed a caravan to the nearest KFC.