Ai Weiwei is taking down Lego's reputation brick by brick

I've only once been followed by a spy and it was to a meeting with Ai Weiwei, writes Paul Afshar of Fishburn.

Lego has bricked itself into a corner, argues Paul Afshar
Lego has bricked itself into a corner, argues Paul Afshar
Over lunch the dissident Chinese artist filled us in on a campaign to counter tax fraud charges against him. The answer, as it turned out, was simple.  

A mass movement of people donating ¥50 and ¥100 (£5 and £10) notes in the basket of a bicycle and over the walls of the compound where he was then held under house arrest. 

Two things struck me. First was that before me was a mischievous man. Second that people liked and believed in that man, and brand Weiwei.

It was curious, therefore, to see another well-loved brand, Lego, make the decision to take him on.  
Last week the Danish toy company refused a bulk order of bricks for a new artwork about free speech for an Andy Warhol/ Ai Weiwei exhibition.  

Their reason was a curious one. Its political content. 

There are two potential interpretations here. One is to say that Lego, a children’s toy manufacturer, has neither reason nor desire to become embroiled in tricky, sticky issues like this one.  

The second is that it was an error of judgement, and indeed of opponent.

Taking the second argument first, evidence seems to weigh in Weiwei’s favour.  

In that time a global campaign for people to donate their Lego bricks to the artist has exploded.  

The issue has generated some 173 million Twitter impressions and commentators line up to shine a very bright spotlight on the company’s ‘history of hiding from politics’. 

Lego has, consequently, boxed itself into a corner. 

On one side, a man fighting what he alleges to be censorship. On the other, the alleged censor.  

Having created a story where one needn’t exist, the company now faces a bloody nose from the bout. It’s a difficult argument to make that brands can exist outside the realm of social issues.  
Two examples spring to mind.  

When the US Supreme Court announced a decision to legalise gay marriage earlier this year, companies lined up to express their support. Twitter hashtag #LoveWins was adopted by ice cream maker Ben & Jerry’s and Visa forked out a not inconsiderable sum to advertise 'Love accepted everywhere'. 

The second, and perhaps more controversial, was when Starbucks, in response to the Ferguson shootings, launched the #RaceTogether campaign to have its staff openly talk about racial integration.
Here’s the rub.  

That era of companies as mere corporates concerned only with cash flow and compliance is long gone. Pro-social brands grab the attention, and win plaudits.  

Just look at the number of people taking advantage of Uber’s global ‘ride with pride’ offer in 2015.  
The strangest irony of all of this episode is probably this.   

Last year Weiwei used Lego to create portraits of 175 people, from Nelson Mandela to Aung San Suu Kyi, jailed or exiled for their political activism.

Mistake or misjudgement?

Time will tell.  But a mea culpa could yet win back some friends for Lego.

Paul Afshar is associate director of corporate affairs and sustainability at Fishburn

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