Everyone has noticed that The Lego Movie is excellent marketing. It is clever and creative. It looks fantastic, and it’s genuinely witty. It could be up for an Oscar for Best Animated Picture next year. It has already paid for itself at the box office. Bravo, Lego for creating a quality film about your product.
Yet, it is actually smarter than all of that, in terms of how it uses the storyline to get past the modern audience’s defenses against advertising. Especially when it comes to the parents of young kids, who are already practically eating Legos for breakfast.
As the mother of a six-year-old boy, I live in a house strewn with Legos. They collect in mounds on every surface, they are on the floor of the car, I have picked them out of the drain of the tub and out of my shoes and out of the dryer.
He wants new sets all the time. He follows the instructions to each with uncharacteristic attention to detail, builds it and immediately wants another. As a parent, I can’t argue with something that is making him excited to follow layers of intricate instructions and feel good about the finished product.
But of course, this is the modern Lego magic. This is the business model. A kid with mountains of Legos needs more because he wants to build what’s on the box. So he needs more sets. And they aren’t cheap.
Of course, there’s no reason he can’t just build new things with the piles of old Legos he already has. And he does, sometimes. But it’s the new set where he can — step-by-step — create something that’s pretty cool in his eyes. It’s more immediately gratifying for him to see an X-wing fighter replica emerge from his efforts than putting together his own hodge podge.
So taking this kid to see The Lego Movie, I know I’m subjecting myself, and him, to a 2-hour commercial. And yes, I’m paying money to give Lego big screen, 3D access to my son’s brain and soul for the evening. I am aware of this. But I hear it’s well-done, and I know he will like it, his friends are talking about it. So…off we go.
But I’m mildly surprised when the movie itself takes off with an intriguing premise. The world that is introduced is a dystopia where all of the Lego characters follow instructions — they need instructions to remind them to breathe in the morning, and smile. Then everyone gets their $37 coffee and goes to work and sings, “Everything is Awesome!” for hours. You must follow the instructions. As it turns out, there is an evil “Lord Business” behind all of this, who needs to be stopped before he brings an end to creativity altogether with micromanagement and perfectionism.
This is all a message that is fairly subversive to Lego’s basic business model. And, with a heroine that has streaks of blue and pink in her hair, and who assembles motorcycles on the fly as she rides to break the rules and evade the law, well — it’s meant to feel rebellious against the very idea of following instructions.
But — viewing The Lego Movie as one massive piece of content marketing (and really that’s what it is) — this was a master stroke.
The very first rule of good content marketing is to NOT be self-promotional. Even better if you can be a little subversive and self-aware and funny. It’s important that you speak in the plain language of the audience, but with a level of sophistication that winks to the smartest among them. Like the old Bugs Bunny cartoons, The Lego Movie speaks to the kids and the parents equally well. This is where you allow for the audience to identify. They no longer see it as polished advertising, and their guard comes down.
One of the Lego worlds visited by the heroes is “Cloud Cuckoo Land,” which has a pink and purple color palette with puppies and positivity that can only be a reference to Lego’s loopy girl line — “Lego Friends.” Many a mother and young girl has had a gag reaction to the Lego Friends sets like “The Outdoor Bakery,” and the “Puppy’s Playhouse.” In the movie, the lead character, Emmet, looks around at the scene, he says “Ok, I’m just gonna come right out, I have no idea what’s going on or what this place is at all.”
So Lego is laughing at itself here. A combination unicorn/kitty flits around explaining that “Every idea is a great idea except for the non-positive ones!”
By now, you appreciate that Lego is alongside you — making fun of Legos! Even as the screen is popping with 3D Legos and your son is bouncing on the end of his seat.
But then, (spoiler alert!) at the end of The Lego Movie, the Lego business world order is all restored. It turns out that the evil Lord Business is not really a bad guy. In fact, he doesn’t even exist! He’s actually just a dad who got a little over-controlling due to his own love of Legos. And following instructions actually helps the heroes save the day. So perhaps no one is suggesting you stop buying Lego sets. Just that you try doing different things with them here and there.
And a pile of Legos sitting off to the side stacked in a bunch of boxes is pointed to as not very interesting after all. It’s the cool Lego sets that the child really wants to play with, and in the end the Dad lets him (and his sister too — gasp!)
But by then, you are already sucked into the story, you’ve eaten half your popcorn, you’ve had a good laugh, been dazzled by the effects and enjoyed yourself. You’ve noticed the quality of the production more than the underlying messages, and you feel like, boy — Lego really gets it. God knows what messages your kid has absorbed, but it’s probably nothing much more nefarious than “Buy more Legos.”
So it’s a happy Lego ending for everyone, especially Lego. Who is now poised for a bonanza of sales of movie merch, in addition to a major boost for all the sets and characters who made cameo appearances in the movie.
Like it or not, this is content marketing. Typically it’s directed at adults, and typically it’s to allow some executive or brand to show the world their stuff in a way that is not a direct pitch. Do we get nervous when it infiltrates our news feed? Maybe. Do we get uncomfortable when it is directed at our kids? A bit.
Maybe it’s just like the trip to Disney, where you drop your cynicism for a while even as you know you are in a massive commercial environment, and enjoy the ride.
Just remember, we all know what happens next: You’ll get dumped off at the gift shop at the end.