You may have read in the news this morning that famous Chinese political artist Ai Weiwei and toy manufacturer Lego are in the midst of a brick-related bust-up. The altercation arose when Weiwei, known for his politically-charged works aimed primarily at the Chinese government, was refused a bulk order request of Lego for a new exhibition in Melbourne, Australia. The company stated that it could not endorse “the use of Lego bricks in projects or contexts of a political agenda” and refused to send him any.
In response, Weiwei has accused Lego of “censorship and discrimination”, and has sparked a social media storm with supporters around the world offering to donate their old Lego to him. He has even set up “Lego collection points” across the globe to receive these donations.
So, did Lego make the wrong decision?
On the face of it, it seems a dud move. For a brand associated with creative freedom and self-expression, it is perhaps short-sighted to annoy a celebrity artist, particularly one so widely known for standing up to, in his view, an oppressive government. Additionally, the fact that many (at least if Twitter affirmations are anything to go by) have stated they’ll never buy from Lego in the future as a result, may suggest that Lego have played this wrong. What would be the harm of sending him a couple of bricks?
Scratch the surface however, and I reckon Lego are in the right. At their core, Lego has a playful, innocent quality that is focused on encouraging children to create. It does not, nor should it, engage in political debate, because that goes away from this brand persona. Refusing to supply Weiwei doesn’t prevent the artist from using Lego in his work. The subsequent #legosforweiwei hashtag has proven he won’t have any issues finding materials, but it does clearly stop Lego from implicitly endorsing Weiwei’s work.
Is this in itself a shrewd business move, by not antagonising the political class of a key future area for growth? Or is it an equally shrewd brand-led move, which protects the child-like innocence of Lego by refusing to engage in the big bad world of political dissidence?
Regardless, I think Lego got it right, by not (for once) letting Weiwei play with its bricks.