This is the improbable eighth salvo in Michael Rutherford’s regular column, Fire for Effect. Without any further ado, take it away Mike…
As most of my readers (all eight of you) already know, “Fire for effect” is the specific command one utters in order to summon a large (or at least decisive) amount of artillery fire against an enemy who’s exact location and disposition are known. In this respect, I am wandering slightly afield with today’s fire mission. Today’s installment would really be more accurately characterized as “counter battery fire”. When enemy artillery fire comes in on your position, you try to identify the source of the hostile fire, and then to direct your own artillery fire against it (by use of task built radar systems). I’m calling today’s fire mission “Counter Battery” because, I am inspired specifically by the work of another author. I dedicate this fire mission entirely to him with all due respect. His work was topical, relevant, and touched a nerve in me. Even as I call for fire, I want him to know that it is only with the utmost respect that I offer this counter volley.
Back in July, I read an article written by one very pissed off Australian AFOL called Jay. Jay (who runs a very nice blog by the way) was angry because every year, TLG distributes “Exclusive Minifigs” via some kind of random draw system at the San Diego Comic Convention (SDCC). Specifically, he said he was angry because he really, really wanted some of these figures, but he could not secure them at the price he wanted. The title of the article was basically his thesis: “San Diego Comic Con exclusives are terrible and LEGO needs to stop them.” Here is a link to the article itself:
I liked the article. It lacked structure, but the author took refreshingly unambiguous position. Sure, in the comments, I fault him for not providing supporting arguments, to reinforce some of his underlying assumptions… but overall, I liked it. More importantly though, I was taken with the other readers responses. The empirical evidence suggests pretty clearly, that his thesis resonates with many AFOLs. Out of 73 comments, 25 were statements of absolute agreement with the author’s thesis. That’s a lot. Only 6 were clearly statements of disagreement. The remaining 42 comments were either unclear, impertinent, or they were the author responding the comments of others (also a pretty cool practice in my opinion). 25 to 6. Most commenters were basically saying: “damn right TLG needs to stop!”
The readers gave a lot of minutely different reasons for disapproving of this practice. But when you boil it down to gravy, the majority of people were complaining that they couldn’t get the figures and this makes them angry. Here is a quote from the author that sums up many people’s feelings on the issue:
“I am continuously disappointed that LEGO are still engaging in this awful practice. Please stop screwing over your most passionate fans while you enrich resellers and scalpers. It’s anti-fun and anti-fan behavior.”
I read this and thought: So what? This question leapt to the forefront of my mind in an instant. So what? I repeated the question allowed this time, speaking to nobody in particular. Flinging the question directly out into the dimly lit smoke-filled lounge where I was sitting… and then, the incredibly talented Mrs. Tina Turner put a reassuring hand on my shoulder and with one of her trade mark fleshy smiles, she and asked the musical question: What’s love got to do with it? Then she sang and danced a bit. When she was done, we sat in silence, sipping our drinks… and again, I asked myself: What’s love, but a second-hand emotion?
The author suggests in this quote that he (and AFOLs in general) somehow matter “more” because we are passionate (or dedicated, or committed, or whatever) to the product. He (and many others) suggest that their opinions should matter BECAUSE they are big time AFOLs.
And THAT notion is the fulcrum on which his thesis and my counter thesis pivot. The notion that AFOLs matter to TLG was the spark for this FFEs thesis… right here… ready? It’s really short, so don’t blink…
AFOLs don’t matter to TLG.
We don’t matter one at a time, and we don’t matter when we gang up and get ready to rumble (cue the Warriors trailer, but instead of the Warriors, picture several morbidly obese bearded AFOLs running from the baseball bat wielding gang!) I’m not buying it. If you try to collectivize it, and say that AFOLS as a population… passionately… consume a whole lot of Lego… and TLG knows it… and that make our opinions more relevant… you’re still deluding yourself. Our eclectic and factious little tribe does not constitute a large enough share of Legos annual sales to actually influence TLGs marketing decisions. Many AFOLs, like Buzz Lightyear, have an exaggerated sense of self-importance. I’m with Woody on this one:
Just to be clear, I’m not saying I’m glad TLG does exclusives. And I’m not saying it isn’t annoying that they do exclusives. In fact, I’m not really talking about the “SDCC Exclusives” question at all here. Jay’s article is an illustration of a larger, and more important assumption that many AFOLs share, and THAT assumption is what talking about here. I’m talking about a prevailing belief amongst AFOLs that TLG acts (or should act) on the opinions of AFOLs. I think this assumption is silly.
My argument today is what most scholastic debaters would describe as analytical in nature, as it does not rely on specific published information. There are no detailed statistics or pie charts and there are no quotes by published experts. It is not evidentiary. This is because (honesty in lending here…) I rarely do any actual research in these diatribes. This will be at best, a description of a research project that might be interesting if anybody actually did the research. This argument, like almost everything else I have written here will be a prima facie deal. I will offer a series of basically mundane assertions, each of which should appeal to you, constant reader, because they correspond with your own observations and experiences. I am going to try to jockey these limited assertions into something vaguely resembling a syllogism because… it creates clarity and forces me to be logical even if my initial thought process is not logical. Or phrased differently, if I cant make the syllogism work… it might be the universes way of telling me that “my dog just don’t hunt”
So… here is a list of my assumptions. These are all the basic assertions that I believe, and that when linked, will support my thesis:
- TLG is an ethical organization, but, the single strongest influence on their decisions is profit.
- TLG profit is massive. So massive in fact, that TLG is forced to consider not simply specific numbers, but larger concepts like “market share” and “strategic trends”
- TLG knows that adults purchase, and have always purchased, more Lego than children do.
- The term AFOL is separate from the notion that adults purchase most Lego.
- TLG can only identify a small number of AFOLs as being separate from other adult Lego buyers.
- There is no accurate data source for AFOL numbers or activities.
- Because the AFOL market share is not KNOWABLE… it is foolish to assume that TLG acts upon it.
I will develop each of these points in a second, but just so I don’t lose you, here is a quick list of negative assumptions (NAs) that I DO NOT DISPUTE. I won’t develop these assumptions, but I don’t deny them. They are part of the landscape, but they are not germane to my assertions.
NA1. AFOLs do buy more Lego than most adults… but only on a per capita level.
NA2. TLG does know AFOLs exist… they just don’t care, or regard us as uncontrollable distractors.
NA3. TLG does pay the AFOL community some small attention, because that is an inexpensive way to create the image of a socially engaged company (an artificial image is pleasing to the larger non-AFOL but still adult Lego purchasing population).
NA4. Most of us… people… humans… everyday… have an exaggerated sense of self-importance (but this is extra, extra true when discussing Goldman!).
Still reading. Really? Well I can’t throw stones… I mean hell, I’m still writing so really, what am I going to say about you still reading? I’ve wasted even more time than you so far! Let me develop my assumptions while you jab holes in them… I can hear the hiss of escaping air even now!
Assumption 1. For as long as I have been paying attention, Lego has always come across to me, as a highly ethical company. They held out against the sirens call of “war toy profit” for ages! Lots of other lousy brands went to the low hanging fruit of military themed building toys… but Lego? They made limited concessions, but they held tough to “no modern war themes” even in the face of almost certain loss of market share. That’s commitment to an ideal dammit! I just don’t see much of that. Hell yes I would buy Chick-fil-A on a Sunday if they were open! They are losing profit… in the name of a moral value? Astounding by today’s standards. So ETHICS? Yep, TLG has, in living memory demonstrated a strong ethical element in their decision-making. But ultimately, that lesser god, ethics, is subordinated to the oldest and strongest of the gods of the market place pantheon: PROFIT!
I give TLG props for holding out as long as they did… and I call them out… for selling out… with the introduction of the Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Arc franchise action. The Star Wars guns… Oh thank you TLG for those! Modern, vicious and menacing in appearance. But at the same time, it was kind of the end of innocence. Gone were the days of “romantic violence”… you know, medieval weapons that are only used of impaling, cleaving, and hacking. Gone were the happy days of black powder weapons and the marginal cruelty of low velocity irregular iron projectiles. The era of fully automatic directed energy weapons had arrived… along with the affiliated profit margins! Those kits all sold like gang busters, and still do (even as TLG attempts to back away from the cruel guns and replace them with those tragic spot light looking devices). The point being that it is PROFIT and NOT ETHICS that ultimately directs TLG’s decision-making. So for example, hurt feelings don’t matter to them…
TLG is going to engage in marketing behaviors based on impact of profit in terms of market share, and not on the notion that some ill-defined subset of the adult purchasing population disapproves of their actions.
Assumption 2. Again, I own it… some really soft math coming up. Hell, I better just get away from the word “math” all together here. I got NO numbers for you. NONE… so let’s go with relative amounts instead. If you read Jays assertions regarding amounts of money he considers relevant to this discussion, he applies some decidedly dicey math (hey… it’s more mathy than my own thinking!) and derives an amount of 60K in on-line sales (its down in the comments below his article). He hangs his assertion of relevance on this amount. I counter with the entirely subjective assertion that this amount is paltry (no Keith, not like chicken. That’s poultry). Double this amount. Multiply it by 10… it’s still chicken feed (or poultry feed). I offer that these numbers… when compared to the galactic numbers TLG deals with (and which I haven’t even tried to locate) are infinitesimal. The decision to offer or not to offer “exclusives” is not about immediate profit. They are “promotional” items. They are meant to get people’s attention. Introduce the product to people who might not otherwise think about Lego. Maybe to increase brand exposure or some other “non-immediate” agenda. Like advertisements, these exclusive offers COST TLG some cash… and they MIGHT generate profit… but only indirectly.
So what? How does this assertion relate to my thesis? It’s about scale. I’m saying that the tiny derivative numbers generated by counting the sales of exclusive figures on-line after the moment of initial distribution, falls short of the significance of profit residing in “market share” level numbers by orders of magnitude. Why is TLG giving stuff away at SDCC? It’s not because it’s an efficient method of distribution! SDCC is TINY! The largest fan driven comic event in the world… is TINY! I don’t know WHY TLG does it… but I think its more likely to be about marketing than direct sales. Maybe they are giving away Lego at the COMIC event in order to make MORE comic book consumers recognize and consume MORE LEGO. Maybe it is an attempt to make comic industry players recognize and like Lego as a product. Maybe they are trying to cook up a buzz at a gigantic week-long commercial marketing event. All of these possible agenda are only relevant in terms of “market share” or “market demographics”. Big strategic numbers… where tiny glacial movements can still result in massive amounts of revenue. Of course, in fact… I certainly don’t know why TLG does it (again… no reliable data) but I’m saying that it’s NOT to make an immediate profit. In fact… don’t they literally GIVE the stuff away? Or at least sell it for even tinier prices?
The endorsement (or even the opinion) of the AFOL community does NOT enter into TLGs decisions regarding these low density high effort marketing maneuvers. Further, those opinions SHOULD NOT MATTER… because we don’t buy enough Lego to matter… the profit AFOLs contribute is not MASSIVE, and TLG looks at MASSIVE numbers.
Assumptions 3 and 4. Adults buy most Lego, AFOLs remain mostly invisible as a separate demographic. Kids with money buy Lego. Yes. Seen it. True. Proclaim! But… go to the checkout stand (any checkout stand Keith! It doesn’t matter! Gosh!) Upper end venue, the Lego Store, FAO Schwarz… all the way down to Wal-Mart. It don’t matter. Watch the point of purchase. Mostly grownups paying. Yeah, often purchasing the kids choice… but at the actual point of purchase… it’s the adult. That is the adult who swipes their own credit card. That is the moment of data generation. Reports don’t read: “Billy likes the new Star Wars kit” Reports read: Mr. William T Conklin purchased item number 123456 at a cost of 65.99 at 4:36PM at Wallmart at such and such address… and then TLG cross references William T. Conklin with all the other data bases they have bought access to. THAT is the vast majority of trackable, usable, hard data. Yep, TLC takes surveys. Yep, TLC wants kids to hang out on their website (and generate trackable data). And yep, TLC has OTHER sources of data (play testing, market analysis, testimonial… and many other awkward slow-growing data sources) But the moistest fastest, newest, data? Digital, gathered at the point and time of purchase.
To TLG eyes… MOST sales are made to adults. I can’t quote a source here… but I believe this, and I believe the same was true 10 years ago… and I believe that the same will be true 10 years in the future.
That said… HOW does TLG separate AFOL purchases from non-AFOL purchase? Short answer, they really don’t. Why not? Because they can’t. Not QUICKLY or EASILY at any rate. Yes, they could track patterns on say… Bricklink? It’s a large data source, and it’s sort of “open.” Hell, if they really cared, I bet TLG could simply “BUY” all the specific data they wanted directly from the Bricklink guys. But, I’m saying I don’t think TLG cares enough to do this. They COULD acquire and maybe exploit detailed knowledge of a “More AFOL pure” population by acquiring and analyzing Bricklink data… but I’m saying there is no compelling evidence to suggest they do… and the general mood of casual indifference shown by TLG in regard to the AFOL suggests to me that they DON’T.
What’s the relevance of assumptions 3 and 4? We as AFOLs understand the difference between our purchasing habits and those of normal toy buying parents… but TLG simply CANT understand the difference because it does not manifest in ways they can consistently track and understand. We are invisible to them in terms of tracking how much money we (all AFOLs) actually spend. They literally cannot see us as a separate group because our credit card purchases don’t have an “AFOL Identifier Code”
TLG is aware that we exist… So lets indulge our imaginations for a bit and jump from the concept of “awareness” to the concept of “understanding”. Lets pretend TLG watch AFOL behavior and expends the resources necessary to analyze AFOL behavior (as if we were a real “market” of our own). After studying us… I doubt they would regard us as a single population. Our behavior (specifically our buying behaviors) are as diverse as we are! Many buy from Lego.com… others buy from Bricklink… still others buy kits from retail outlets… our opinions and actions do not fall into easily categorized large chunks (the way it does when counting the millions of small purchases happening in retail outlets every day).
WARNING! WARNING! BRACE FOR IMPACT WITH SANCTIONED NON SEQUITUR!
Jay talks about TLG, and I talk about Jay and TLG, and on and on it goes… but TLG is where our Venn diagram overlaps. And, after a sustained search effort that lasted for at least… 6 minutes… I did find this bit of TLG rhetoric on this topic. OK, almost on this topic. It does sort of address the notion that TLG looks at more than the narrow data streams I describe… mostly I wanted to add this link just to create the illusion of inclusion. TLG is NOT talking to me, and TLG does NOT endorse any statements by any people mentioned on this ghetto little blog. But… TLG does engage in limited public rhetoric on the topic of how they develop their understanding of their customers… and here is a tiny scrap of that public rhetoric. Just between you and me… I don’t buy most of this message. It looks to me like a message designed to appeal to an audience… as opposed to a genuine description of a process. It’s a bit of shiny wrapping around what is basically a black box. Still, I recommend you all take a gander. It’s interesting.
END OF SANCTIONED NON SEQUITUR… MOVE ALONG. END OF SANCTIONED NON SEQUITUR… MOVE ALONG…
Assumption 5: TLG can only identify a small number of AFOLs as being separate from other adult Lego buyers. Keeping on the theme of what TLG CAN DO… sure, TLG knows who Sean Kenney is. Or who built the life size house out of Lego. And maybe they know some big names from the on-line community. Many of their employees are interested in on line activity. Some of their employees actually are AFOLs. But all of those names… 100… 200? 2000? They still don’t add up to more than chump-change in terms of consumption. The AFOL is at best, a source of FREE PRODUCT EXPOSURE… and even that free advertising is fraught with peril in the eyes of this privately owned company. AFOL efforts are a classic double edged blade.
AFOLs build MOCs that communicate political commentary. Social satire. Adult humor. The horrors of the modern world. Humanities dark side. Terrible terrible things… through the time tested and generally excellent lens of Art. It’s powerful, relevant, unbridled, volatile… just like music, poetry, painting, ceramics, film, theater… it’s Art (well… some of it. Ok ok… A tiny little bit of it is Art). Aside from the powerful Art… there is also a lot of powerful crap! Tons and tons of vile, inappropriate, “totally not cool for kids or soccer moms” crap! Offensive. Callous. Cruel. COUNTER to the messaging agenda of TLGs marketing experts! Lego WWI? Lego WWII? Lego in guerrilla wars around the world? Lego in the global war on terror? Lego nuclear holocaust? Lego racism? Lego sexism? Lego school shootings? Lego imperialism? Lego Zombies?
Good topics? Sure! Adult topics? Hell yeah? Topics kids are into? Often, yes! Socially redeeming topics? Easy now… I’m not going to take this diatribe to that level… that’s a question for all 4 of you guys still reading this shit to decide for yourselves! You control the action! Point is that on some level it’s all good stuff… but…NOT TLGs chosen themes for their product! TLG does not want their beloved product associated with these harsh themes! (I know, Star Wars features push button genocide… but we both know… it’s not the same as historical genocide! So don’t even start!).
Oh, and before anybody jumps down this rabbit hole… a word about the Certified Lego Builders program. That program is absolutely focused on a tiny niche in a global market. It may be cool, and those builders may be good, and most of them are in fact adults… and TLG does have an official and meaningful relationship with them… but this is an incredibly specific, limited topic which is discrete and separate form the topic of AFOLs in general. Certified Builders: Commercially Relevant, and a super tiny group. NOT the same as AFOLs.
So what? TLG knows about some small number of AFOLs, but we can’t be an influential group because our behavior is as much a threat to TLGs messaging campaign as it is a help. Guys who do great AFOL stuff, big highly visible stuff… Like Kenney and MOCpages, or even immediate practical beneficial stuff like Nannan Zhang’s annual charity drive… do not constitute a reliable source of public influence.
Assumption 6: There is no accurate data source for AFOL numbers or activities. Some overlap here with 4 and 5, but this is an interesting stand-alone notion. Where would an accurate count of AFOLs come from? Rosters of popular on-line sites like flickr or… the Manifesto (Hey piss off! Snakes on a Plane could totally happen in real life!)? Activity levels in busy market sites like ebay or bricklink? I can’t see that being the answer. Again, not all AFOLs are active on line… how many are not? Don’t know… cause… there not…active? How do you count the people who are not there? And… not all active online participants in any activity are there for the same reason. Some talkers don’t build. Many builders don’t buy. Many buyers don’t build… again, once you leave the massive repeating and perfectly formatted numbers of the checkout stand… how do you assess the data your looking at? There are lots of conversations about this topic all over the place, here is a link to just one. I liked it for the number of serious attempts to derive actual numbers… but what it really illustrates is the genuine dearth of real knowledge out there! Quick shout out to Island AFOL Kyle Vrieze for really trying to bring some mathematical logic to this discussion!
This assertion matters (that nobody knows how many AFOLs there really are) because it gets us past the myopic hazard of focusing on TLG as the end all be all answer for this question. TLG may be the LAST people to actually know how many AFOLs there are… but if not TLG, then who DOES know? And I assert that the answer is NOBODY. Nobody actually knows. The answer is not known… and maybe not even knowable. Read the thread and you will see one of the big problems. What are we really trying to count? Much of the observable universe is definable. Molecules in solution are definable, and even countable. Maybe we can even define bends in time/space and other crazy stuff. But the AFOL? That is some nebulous shit right there man! Is an AFOL defined by age? By behavior? By motivation? Are merchants the same as builders? They both might buy lots of Lego right? What about merchants who build? What about kids who are merchants? What about kids who buy like adults? What about adults who totally act like kids? Are these criteria mutually exclusive? Do they overlap? We, they, you, or TLG… nobody is trying to count exactly the same thing. The thing we all call “AFOL” (in this discussion) is not really clearly defined. Maybe not even definable. How long is a piece of string? Ok… if you’re caught up on the string thing…or if none of that works for you, how about a Sting thing?
I love Sting.
Assumption 7 sort of snuck up on me and turned into a conclusion. Because the AFOL market share is not KNOWABLE… it is foolish to assume that TLG acts upon it. In fact, at this point, I add that it is also foolish to say TLG “should” act upon it.
Well, my syllogism never did come together with the Aristotelian clarity I was hoping for, but I’m pretty sure all the parts are laying on the floor here someplace. Let me try to actually assemble it correctly. Based on the assumptions I have argued above…
FACT: TLG only bases its marketing decisions on metrics that it believes are measurable or consistent or predictable.
FACT: AFOLs are not measurable or consistent, or predictable metrics.
CONCLUSION: Ergo TLG does not base its marketing decisions on AFOLs.
That’s a pretty rough cut. I don’t think Ill be taking home any blue ribbons from the annual syllogism competition at the state fare. But… I came in talking about syllogisms… so I guess I better go out that way.
“That’s some pretty thin shit Rutherford!” – Aristotle
This is the single greatest point of contention between me and Jay. He says TLG should listen to AFOLs because we matter. I say TLG shouldn’t listen to us because AFOLs don’t matter. Now, of course we matter on some level. We are people, and all people matter (well, duh… yes… if you shoot an AFOL it matters… cause we are all people, and you can’t shoot people. Yes… in that way, we all matter!). But I say we don’t matter in terms of a force that should influence a large commercial endeavor. All of our super cool, dynamic, creative, socially relevant MOCs, all of our charitable acts, our fests, our public displays in libraries… all of that “more than kit buying and building” stuff that we do… does not and should not affect TLGs world view. If you think it does… say so, and jab me in the eye with your arguments! Everybody except Keith because he thinks that TLG should actually base their actions on his opinions, and his opinions alone, which is obviously crazy talk.
So now, let me count… looks like at least three of you have read to this point. And looks like at least one of you is perturbed. You have my grid. You know my disposition. Take a moment to gather your thoughts, push the button on your handset and order your batteries to open up on my position. Remember, it’s a radio, so yelling into the mic on your end doesn’t make you louder on the other end. Fire!