LEGO’s decision to break its 50 year partnership with Shell is – as they say in America – kind of a big deal. Despite their best attempts to downplay its significance, this was a multimillion dollar partnership that had delivered real benefits to the oil giant over the years. That LEGO chose to break it in response to a huge wave of public pressure is both a major blow to Shell and the cultural influence of the oil industry itself.
The origins of this campaign lie in Shell’s reckless push to drill for oil in the Arctic, a place of unparalleled beauty which is only accessible to oil companies because it’s melting away. As you might imagine, this kind of project requires a gigantic effort on Shell’s part, from securing licenses to lobbying politicians, before finally hiring all the kit to sink the drill bit into the mud. But big oil companies also need a different type of license, one that is granted by the public in a far less tangible way. Within the industry it’s so well established that it even has its own term – the ‘social license to operate’. This is what the LEGO deal was all about.
By placing its logo in thousands of playrooms around the world, Shell tried to insulate itself against anyone who claims that oil companies have no long term place in our society. Children who grow up with Shell toys are less likely to criticise the brand in later life, and are more inclined to believe the company when it claims that spills, fires and accidents are just the cost of doing business. If you think this is fanciful, ask a marketing expert why they focus on children. Not only do our kids influence the way we think and act, they are the opinion formers of tomorrow. And Shell has been trying to buy them off.
A few bright sparks in the comment threads have pointed out that LEGO bricks themselves are made from oil, as if this is this killer argument that undermines everything we’re trying to achieve. Well, sure they are, for now. But LEGO has pledged to find alternative, non fossil based materials for its bricks in the coming years. In fact, this Danish company has shown real determination to go beyond oil and gas, including a pledge to use only renewable energy across all of its factories and offices. This kind of progressive thinking is completely at odds with Shell’s business model, which is predicated on an ever growing supply of fossil fuels that would have disastrous consequences for all of us.
In a wider sense, today’s announcement aligns LEGO with other progressive (but hardly marginal) brands like Google, Unilever and Facebook who are setting the pace in today’s world. Google’s use of renewable energy is particularly impressive, building huge solar arrays to power the giant data centres that run so much of our lives. Something is happening at the CEO level of these firms. There is a growing sense that it’s time to get on the right side of history, or become history yourself. Despite LEGO’s rather begrudging announcement of today’s news (provoked, no doubt, by a furious PR team at Shell) the company will benefit from aligning itself with those that have a positive vision for the future. Its fans will love it even more, and children around the world, in particular, will no longer associate LEGO with a company that is increasingly associated with a negative impact on our society.
Of course this will not stop Arctic drilling on its own, and we still face a major battle to contend with the giant PR budgets of these industrial machines. But working alongside our millions of supporters, cultural leaders and allies like Liberate Tate we will continue to examine the role of oil companies in our culture. From university students pushing their faculties to divest from fossil fuels, to individual acts of rebellion at sponsored science fairs, we are seeing the start of something new. Shell might have all the money in the world (not to mention most of our elected politicians on speed dial), but we have creativity, disruption, and history on our side. Brick by brick, we’re building a movement to shake things up.
James Turner is the head of communications for Greenpeace International’s Arctic campaign.
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