Dashing through the decades of LEGO’s holiday advertising [Feature]

This time of year is one of the busiest for toy manufacturers, including the LEGO Group. In an effort to associate the brand with holiday gift-giving, the months of November and December bring a flurry of wintry-themed advertising. While much of the LEGO Group’s current advertising campaigns exist online, the company has a long history of producing holiday advertising in magazines, comic books, and mail order catalogs (aka LEGO Shop at Home catalogs). Our elves have been hard at work, sifting through the archives for some of the LEGO Group’s most memorable seasonal ads. Hop in the sleigh and hold tight for a wild ride back through time.

1967 – LEGO, the toy they won’t be tired of by Dec. 26th

Back in 1967, the Samsonite Corporation was licensed to produce and market LEGO toys within North America. At the time, the LEGO brand was already well-established in Europe because the bricks had been widely available there since the 1950s. Samsonite was tasked with bringing the North American market up to speed. In an effort to differentiate LEGO products from other toys, Samsonite decided to emphasize the versatility of LEGO bricks. Whereas other toys might quickly wind up in the closet, LEGO sets were perennial toys. Their only limitation was a child’s imagination. For Christmas 1967, Samsonite proclaimed LEGO sets as “…the toy they won’t be tired of by Dec. 26th.” Despite being edgy for the time, LEGO HQ in Denmark became increasingly dissatisfied with Samsonite’s performance and eventually parted ways. Samsonite retained licensing in Canada through the 1980s, but 1972 would be the final year of U.S. licensed Samsonite sets.

1977 – The Burger Chef holiday promotion

When it comes to fast food and LEGO, most people tend to think of the McDonald’s Happy Meal tie-ins dating back to the early 1980s. Before McDonald’s, the LEGO Group engaged in a holiday partnership with Burger Chef, another American chain restaurant. Customers received a small LEGO set along with the purchase of each $5.00 gift certificate. Unlike the McDonald’s promotions, the sets were not exclusive to Burger Chef and were released between 1975 and 1976. Buyers could choose from three models, including a tipper truck, fork lift, and biplane. Burger Chef was founded in the 1950s and once rivaled McDonald’s, but it was flipping patties on borrowed time. The last location closed in 1996, leaving behind this obscure footnote in LEGO history.

1979 – Give them more toys than Santa could get down a chimney.

If you grew up in the UK during the 1970s, you might remember this five page ad that ran in the November 24, 1979 issue of the Radio Times. On the first page, readers were greeted by an elaborate LEGO model of Santa coming down the chimney. There are fun details like brick-built candelabras, greeting cards, stockings, and an electrical outlet. The children have even left a sweet LEGO treat for Santa, including what appears to be a glass of wine. We hope he had a designated driver!

The next four pages consist of holiday greeting cards lined atop the brick-built mantle, along with descriptions of various themes. Some cards feature imagery closely associated with Christmas, like the snowman and three kings seen here. Others are festive photographs highlighting specific themes, like Fabuland and Town. Much like the 1967 Samsonite ad, this piece touched on the theme of LEGO bricks offering more hours of play than the average toy. “Not every toy stretches the imagination. Which is why so many of the toys that seemed a lot of fun on Christmas morning ended up as clutter in a cupboard by New Year. Thankfully, there are LEGO sets.”

One card many of our readers may be interested in shows a group of Classic Space minifigures caroling around a decorated tree. You will also find a Homemaker room being decorated, a train blazing through the snow with a plow, and Santa flying in an Expert Builder bulldozer. The LEGO Group wanted to demonstrate how LEGO is “…a new toy every day,” even during the holidays!

1989 – I saw Technic figures dressed as Santa Clause.

A decade later, LEGO UK released a mail order catalog with this whimsical cover. This one utilized the Technic figure, first introduced in 1986. In a stroke of genius, someone decided to dress one up in a Santa suit and have a bunch of minifigure “elves” trailing behind with a huge sack of toys. They are presumably leaving Santa’s workshop, which appears to have been inspired by the Castle theme. The scenery is phenomenal and plays a role in making the illustration look believable. The starlit sky, Northern Lights, and glow from the building’s interior all feel magical. Clay used for snow adds an extra dash of personality.

1991 – On Blacktron, on Town, on Castle, and Pirates!

In Germany, the LEGO Group’s advertising sometimes included pasting little catalogs inside comic books. Such was the case with this particular example. Stylistically, it shares a lot in common with the 1989 catalog. This time, however, LEGO introduced a brick-built Santa in a sleigh pulled by vehicles representative of major LEGO themes. This is the type of imagery that would have gripped a child’s imagination. Who needs reindeer when you have a Spectral Starguider to guide your sleigh tonight?

1992 – I heard you liked catalogs, so I gave you a catalog of a kid looking at a catalog.

In North America, LEGO-Shop-at-Home catalogs had holiday themed covers ever year. Much like today, the LEGO Group began mailing out two different holiday catalogs by the 1990s. One of these depicted brick-built stockings with LEGO goodies inside. The more prominent catalog depicted a boy sitting in front of a Christmas tree, eagerly looking through an earlier Shop-at-Home catalog with a 9-Volt Metroliner on the cover. Given how closely toy trains are associated with this time of year, it’s not surprising that LEGO trains have often been featured on the front covers of holiday issues. However, 1992 was a very special year for LEGO trains because this was the first year 9-Volt trains were introduced to the North American market. They had appeared in Europe a year earlier, and the LEGO Group was eager to advertise them in the U.S. and Canada. Originally developed to replace the 12-Volt trains, the 9-Volt system was discontinued in 2007. Unfortunately, not even Santa can bring it back.

1994 – Oh Islanders, Oh Islanders

From 1992 through 1994, the UK market received some holiday catalogs with attractive hand-drawn artwork. These catalogs were distributed in toy shops selling LEGO products, and the front covers always made sure to intermingle LEGO themes within a snowy environment. The 1994 catalog consists of several classics, including the Spyrius Saucer Centurion, Freight Rail Runner, and Pizza to Go. The Islanders made for an exciting new subtheme for the Pirates series, which is probably why they received top billing in the foreground. Despite being improperly dressed for the weather, they still managed to remain all smiles.

1998 – It’s beginning to look a lot like DUPLO.

In 1998, the LEGO Group’s preschool toys received their own holiday Shop-at-Home catalog. The cover of this piece features an enjoyable scene of a Duplo train traveling through the snow. The rail cars are adorned with festive wreaths and garland, and they are filled with adorable DUPLO animals. Pay no attention to the lines in the white lettering and spots on the gray cat. Someone had some fun doodling on this hard-to-find catalog. At least it’s hand-drawn, just like the cover art!

1999 – Thumbs up for holiday magic!

It’s easy to take the LEGO Star Wars license for granted today, but it was huge news when the first sets were launched in 1999. 1999 also witnessed the return of Star Wars to theaters with Episode I, which is why this holiday Shop-at-Home catalog cover features R2-D2 alongside the likes of Darth Maul and Jar Jar Binks. Jar Jar can be found at the top of the stairs, and we shudder at the thought of what most people imagine happens next. Various LEGO minifigures are shown helping Santa churn out some of the finest sets from the Ninja, Adventurers, and Space Port lines. Even the Rock Raiders monster lends a helping hand. It’s enough to receive a big thumbs up from the man in the red suit, or is his excitement over the then-new LEGO computer and video games?

2002 – It’s the most wonderful toy of the year.

Our final piece of advertising comes from the cover of a 2002 German Shop-at-Home catalog, complete with children looking at a festive LEGO store window display. Some of the sets shown are heavily coveted today, such as the Red Baron triplane and Santa Fe Super Chief. It’s worth noting how this artwork was adapted for different regions. For example, the German version features the football (soccer) stadium, triplane, and Star Wars Naboo Starfighter. The U.S. version replaces this artwork with sets from Harry Potter, Bionicle, and a different Star Wars ship. In other words, the catalogs were being tailored to the tastes of each market.

While this article covers some great LEGO holiday advertising, we have barely scratched the surface of what’s out there. Which examples of LEGO holiday advertising are you most fond of? Feel free to let us know in the comment section!