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Greenpeace Wins Again! But So Does Big Oil

If you’re big on the crossover between the youth demographic and the oil market—and who isn’t?—your day was made on Thursday when LEGO announced it was ending a partnership with Shell Oil and Ferrari following (although not because of, officials were careful to clarify) a Greenpeace campaign protesting Shell’s plans to drill in the Arctic.

Shell and LEGO, which have been co-branding toys for half a century (like this 1966-70 Shell Station Playset), entered a new agreement in 2011 with the Italian luxury sports car manufacturer Ferrari. The resulting toys included racecars, tanker trucks, modernized gas stations, tiny little attendants, and a full-size Ferrari entirely made of LEGOs. The partnership may have gone over big with kids; it was definitely a hit with racecar drivers.

But all good things must come to an end. “As things currently stand we will not renew the co-promotion contract with Shell when the present contract ends,” Jørgen Vig Knudstorp, CEO of the LEGO Group, said in a statement released yesterday. “We do not want to be part of Greenpeace’s campaign and we will not comment any further on the campaign. We will continue to deliver creative and inspiring LEGO play experiences to children all over the world.”

Let’s overlook the fact that a partnership between a kids’ toy company, a racecar manufacturer, and an oil company should never have happened. It can only be the product of a post-recession horror vaccui—a fear, in this case, of a void of enormous profits. Brokered three years ago by promotions specialists Iris Worldwide, this particular triumvirate hit all the branding high notes—Innocent kids! Sexy racecars! Big oil money!—and seemed guaranteed to make a splash.

Plus, it more or less fit into the oft-repeated success story that has become the LEGO legacy. (Their LEGOcy, perhaps.) Simpsons sets? Check. Star Wars figurines? Yup. Tiny little Batmobiles? You betcha! Nearly every major pop cultural moment a human in the United States between the ages of two and nine has experienced in recent years is currently available for sale in durable, blocky miniature. There is even a play set to commemorate this year’s The LEGO Movie.

One must admire Iris Worldwide’s dedication to their goal of creating “partnership brands,” according to its website. Despite the long-festering licensing agreement between the two companies, one hopes that the toy company only agreed to take that next step and “partnership brand” with the oil company after intense courtship. After all, Shell is jeopardizing LEGO core audiences’ environmentally sustainable future with plans to drill in our oceans. Following Obama administration approval this summer, offshore drilling, in the Atlantic, for example, could start as early as 2017, which environmentalists warn will damage marine life, including the endangered Atlantic Right Whale.

In other words, this “brand partnership” just smells bad, from really far away. Although LEGO may not have seen it at the time, such partnerships also limit audiences. Not for Ferrari, in this case, which can only benefit from the intergenerational reach, nor for Shell, which is chokingly desperate to get its hands on any new audiences it can. But LEGO’s reputation can only be diminished by concerns over Shell. Kids have always loved a good Save the Whales campaign, after all.

And Greenpeace jumped in with just the right tactic—a slick, viral-ready video spot. In it, the activist organization credited with upholding global environmental integrity made clear that LEGO people drowning in Shell Oil was sexy, but ultimately a bad plan. Called “Everything is NOT Awesome,” the spot’s high-contrast, well-staged choreography uses traditional advertising techniques and a pop-song reference (from The LEGO Movie, natch) to graphically portray the following: LEGO is good, but Shell is bad.

The problem here is that LEGO is a petroleum-based product, and Greenpeace has just made a stunning ad for it. LEGOs are not recyclable “in the way that most people think of as recycling,” a company representative told Gizmodo in 2008. And the blocks’ amazing durability is due toacrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), a strong and shiny thermoplastic. This makes them expensive. In fact, Daily Finance reports, “since production of ABS requires petroleum as a raw material, the cost of the plastic closely tracks the price of oil.”

Greenpeace may have succeeded in eliminating the most visible aspect of the toy-oil industrial complex, but the fundamental reliance of LEGO on petroleum hasn’t even been challenged. And in this later Greenpeace video—introduced by actual LEGO spots, courtesy of YouTube’s ad-matching algorithms—many of the reasons for the partnership are supposedly laid bare. Among the benefits that Greenpeace says Iris Worldwide’s campaign brought the trio: fuel sales increases of 7.5 percent. A “Global PR Value” of $116 million. An increase in Shell loyalty card signups by 52 percent. Sixteen million LEGO toys, which, according to the video, is “one of the largest promotional lines LEGO has ever produced.”

If true, those are stunning numbers—although no sources are cited in the video, and no explanation is given for what “Global PR Value” might be. What viewers do come away with is respect for Iris Worldwide’s smart work here, which seems to have been a financial success, even if the above numbers are huge exaggerations.

Greenpeace’s strategy, in the long term, is likely to backfire. With the group’s campaign, they’ve not only created a delightful ad for a petroleum-based product for kids, they’ve also reminded us of exactly why the Shell/LEGO/Ferrari partnership was such a good idea in the first place. And why more such “brand partnerships” are likely to happen in the future.