Reddit and Tumblr recently went crazy over a 1981 Lego print ad, singling it out as emblematic of a time when girls were encouraged to build, rather than be princesses. As inspiring as the ad is, though, the backstory behind it is an equally uplifting tale of female empowerment.
The “What is Beautiful” ad was created Judy Lotas, who was the creative director at SSC&B, a now-defunct ad agency. Female creative directors are rare even these days — just 3% of creative directors are women, according to one survey. Things weren’t any better in 1981, just a decade or so out of the Mad Men era.
Yet Lotas, who now runs ad agency LPNY, wanted to make a statement. She had two young daughters at the time, and gender equality was a big topic. “This was the time of the ERA,” Lotas said, referring to the Equal Rights Amendment, a proposed amendment to the United States Constitution that would guarantee equal rights for women.
“My daughters were of Lego age,” she told Mashable. “I felt strongly that it wasn’t just for girls. It was kind of a personal bias I had.”
Lotas recalls that the ad was very well-received. At the time, the Starch Test, which measured readers’ recall of print ads, was the industry standard. The Lego ad scored very high on the Starch Test, according to Lotas. Encouraged, Lego stuck with the ad for several years. A television campaign (not available on YouTube) showed kids who built their own toys — for instance, a guitar — when their parents refused to buy them one.
Years later, Lotas left SSC&B to start Lotas Minard Patton McIver, which was run by Lotas and three other female advertising veterans. Meanwhile, Lego dropped the campaign, and its toys evolved from the open-ended bag of bricks seen in the 1981 ad to sets that were built around a theme, for which kids were challenged to recreate models featured on the boxes (i.e. Lord of the Rings).
After surfacing on Reddit last week, the 1981 ad prompted some to compare it to today’s marketing to girls, which tends to emphasize looks over achievement. (As The Huffington Post pointed out, even Lego’s current marketing reflects this style.)
The ad also continued a discussion, which began with a viral video that introduced startupGoldieBlox. The video offered a similar message of empowerment for girls.
For her part, Lotas said she hasn’t seen the GoldieBlox ad, although many people have mentioned it to her recently. She was also aware — and proud — when her old Lego ad made the rounds again.
And what about the girl? Sadly, Lotas doesn’t remember the name of the cute redhead in the ad. “We would have three kids for each shoot, and take tons of pictures,” she said. Thirty-three years later, the girl’s identity remains a mystery.
If anyone knows what became of this girl, please let us know in the comments, and we’ll update our story.