Trouble in Legoland as Greenpeace Campaigns Against Toy Company’s Partnership With Big Oil

The environmental group says giving kids a Shell-branded Lego Ferrari promotes Arctic oil drilling.

As part of its social media campaign against the Shell Oil–Lego partnership, Greenpeace wants you to make your own protest sign. (Photo: Greenpeace)

David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

What happens when a beloved toy company partners with a global oil giant that wants to drill in the Arctic Ocean? Greenpeace gets involved.

The international conservation group has launched a social media campaign against Shell Oil and Lego, which are giving Lego race cars to children while hawking gasoline to their parents.

The two companies have maintained a marketing partnership for more than 50 years. Most recently, Shell launched a global promotion allowing customers who fill up with its V-Power premium gasoline to collect a set of toy Ferraris made by Lego.

The campaign includes an online game and promotional events featuring a life-size Lego Ferrari.

Given Shell's recent efforts to drill for oil beneath the warming Arctic Ocean, Greenpeace decided to let consumers know what their gas money supports.

"We love Lego, so it's deeply disturbing that they've let a company like Shell, which has such a cynical view of the future and a shameful environmental record, put its name on their toys," Greenpeace spokesman Travis Nichols said in an email.

"An oil spill in the Arctic would be catastrophic, and Shell has no credible plans for cleanup," Nichols added. "In fact, they have said there will be spills."

Greenpeace launched the protest on July 1. So far, more than 500,000 people have signed an online petition calling on Lego to end the partnership, according to Nichols. The group also released a video showing an Arctic world built of Lego bricks that's populated by figurine animals and people drowning in oil gushing from a Shell drilling rig. The video has been viewed nearly 5 million times. Greenpeace also invited people to create their own protest signs on its Web-based Protest-O-Matic.

"In only a few days, it has created thousands of new, inventive ways for calling on Lego to end the partnership," Nichols said. "It's a major mistake on Lego's part, and people around the world agree that it will be best for everyone if they drop Shell as a partner."

That may be a tall order. More than 16 million toy Ferraris have been distributed in one of the largest promotional lines Lego has ever created.

That has environmental activists worrying that Lego Ferraris will teach children that oil companies are cool.

"Children form strong emotional attachments in childhood that last a lifetime, and companies know that all too well," Susan Linn, director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, said in a statement.

Shell and Lego answered interview requests by issuing prepared statements.

"A co-promotion contract like the one with Shell is one of many ways we are able to bring Lego bricks into the hands of more children," Lego said. "The Greenpeace campaign focuses on how Shell operates in a specific part of the world. We firmly believe that this matter must be handled between Shell and Greenpeace."

As for Shell, it said, "We respect the right of individuals and organizations to engage in a free and frank exchange of views about meeting the world's growing energy needs, and we recognize the right of individuals to express their point of view."

Nichols sees those words as empty platitudes: "We want Lego to be on the right side of history."

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