Forty years ago, we saw the change in LEGO® sets: the arrival of the minifigure. Now we had articulated figures to bring our models to life: no need to remove the torso for our figures to sit down. As part of #minfigure40 I received access to a large number of media assets: today, I would like to look at some of the features of the advertisements in the LEGO Town/City series, one of the few themes to have been continuously available in some form or another for forty years! The majority of these advertisements were placed in comics, or magazines featuring comic strip anthologies, and puzzles and kid’s news. They have been published in multiple markets – ands languages. I have attempted to translate them as well as an online translation engine will allow.
The art style is typically similar to that seen in contemporary catalogs: certainly I suspect the early advertisements were shot at a similar time to the catalogs for that year.
1978: The Minifigure Arrives in Classic Town
When minifigures were first available, we were aware that they were available in several streams: town, Space and Castle. However, they were not branded as such, rather continuing with the ‘LEGOLAND’ packaging that had accompanied sets of this scale for the previouslcouple of years.
Advertisements of this era all had a very similar art style, regardless of where they were published: with a cardboard cutout landscape; A collection of sets featuring road plates and minifigures populating the town layout. During this first year, a limited number of sets were highlighted in each advertisement, as well as the road plates.
Denmark and Sweden
1979: Our Town Grows
At the end of 1978, our town was well set up with emergency services and construction. In 1979 we saw the expansion with more sets depicting everyday life: a house, taxi, garage, bus station and service station for a start. The advertisements showed an overview of life in the LEGOLAND town, with only a few focussing on specific sets.
This picture was apparently used in an ad in an Italian publication, Topolino, in 1977, a year before the official release of the minifigure, and 2 years before the release of the sets in question!
Another advertisement that appeared in multiple markets that year was this:
The German advertisement focusses on the fire department needing new courageous members, while the Swedish and Italian ads focus on the pace of life in LEGO City.
Other advertisements that year focused on individual sets and their play features:
This German advertisement is one of the few from this era where the child at play is included in the image, and the accompanying copy talks of the importance of the play for children’s development.
The Early 1980’s
Over the next few years, we see advertisements focussing a specific sub themes of town – such as construction, the fire brigade and ambulance, as part of the town layout, rather than views of the the town as a whole.
In 1982, there was a renewed focus on the new aspects of sets, but with others sets of the era in the background of the photographs:
Over the next year or two, we see a couple of ads vary from the previously consistent bright and cheery artwork, with the same developing city layout. The police station at night, looking over LEGOLAND City is a new experience, and then we have the brightly coloured ad for the new boats. With the headline being shouted by a cartoon bird sitting on a buoy, this is a radical departure from the previous advertisements seen.
The Late 80’s
As the decade progresses, me move away from the previously well established shots of our LEGOLAND city, and see some new and dramatic layouts, set over multiple levels. We Also see simple branding for LEGOLAND City/Stad/Stadt around this time.
We also see an advertisement for ‘Free Technic waterskier as a gift with purchase’ when you purchase a LEGO Boat.
While these ads have some similarity to what we saw a decade earlier – colourful backdrops, rolling green hills – the layouts are cleaner, with very little confusion as to what may be included in the set on display. We also we limited attempts to establish a narrative in these advertisements – slightly more specific than those that we have seen previously. During this period, we see few opportunities for cross promotion being taken.
And as the decade drew to a close, we announce the arrival of new play features: Light and Sound
The Early 90’s
The early 90’s began showcasing sets as a part of a larger, multilevelled diorama, as an extension of the original advertisements that we saw in the late 70’s.
However, before long, we start to see a totally different art style: Large dioramas, spanning multiple levels, with model cliffs and mountains to give a split level effect.We also get a more dynamic logo for the Stadt/Ville/City label, in the red arrow outline. In late 1991-92 we see the LEGO System branding adopted.
As we move forward into 1994, we continue with the brightly coloured mixed media landscapes, and we see a much more obvious narrative entering the advertisements, as the hunt for smugglers gets under way:
Moving forward: This advertisement features many of the city sets, with the added drama of a runaway truck, bursting through multple scenes with dialog to add drama and excitement.
1996: It drives straight through the roadblock. “All cars to depot! Last car coming here!” “Help! How do you stop a runaway truck?”
1997: ” – from 5 years”: The Road to Juniorisation.
This year, a new tag line appears – ” for all children from 5 years of age”/”Easy to build when you are five years old.” Advertising easy construction, big elements, presorted parts and their own construction manual, this is a shift from earlier town/city sets. Gone are the extravagant paper mâché landscapes of the early 90’s: We see a return to simple drawn landscapes, more cartoonish than before, and the continuing rise of the composite photomontage that is so familiar today. We also see the ‘red arrow’ logo used in conjunction with the System branding.
1999: Globalisation and the rise of a common language
Up until now, all of the advertisements have only featured the language for the market in which they were published. In 1999, we see an increasingly juniorised ‘City’ line. Not ‘Stadt’, ‘stad’, ‘cità’, ‘by’, ‘ville’ or πόλη, but ‘City’ – the English word, in a diamond, with a dark city silhouette, with the sun rising in the background. Even in the German advertisement! This is where we start to see global branding appear in the advertisements. Not only the City logo, but also the tag line: “LEGO Just imagine…”
As time has gone past, we have seen this early city evolve into ‘World City’ and finally to the LEGO City that we know today.
While documentation tends to remain in the local language, the branding is now universal. Which allows for consistent packaging around the world, subject to local regulations regarding part counts and so forth.
Certainly at this time we have seen a simplification of the artwork – similar to that seen 20 years earlier, but involving contemporary art and design: a change from what appeared to be newspaper article back in the day.
I hope you have enjoyed this trip through the first 20 years of LEGO Town advertising. I have a soft spot for the material from the late 70’s, but I love the detailed landscapes that we saw in the early nineties. What about you? What was your favorite period? Why not share your thoughts below.
I am grateful to the LEGO Group for making the images available. Perhaps we will take a look at another classic theme soon. Or maybe something else. In the mean time, you can check out my survey of train specific adverts here. Until next time…