"Build it!”♫♪♬: When the King of Pop Burst LEGO’s Bubble
Updated: Jun 17, 2019
When you think of the music that defined the 1980s, it’s hard to imagine a list without Michael Jackson. By the end of the decade, he was an international superstar thanks to hit songs like Beat It and Smooth Criminal. If Michael was the undisputed “King of Pop,” LEGO was the “King of Toys.” Like Michael, LEGO enjoyed substantial growth throughout the eighties, culminating in the debut of the wildly popular Pirates theme in 1989. That same year, the two kings converged in a tango destined to leave a little “Blood on the Dance Floor.”
Building the King - An Ad is Born
The LEGO-Michael Jackson connection was first established in the Autumn 1989 issue of the UK LEGO Club magazine, Bricks ‘n Pieces. For this issue, a brick-built likeness of Michael Jackson was prominently featured on the front cover. According to the article inside, the highly detailed sculpture was built for an advertising agency by UK Master Builder, Andy Murphy. It took Murphy three and a half weeks and nearly 8,000 bricks to turn the “King of Pop” into the “King of Block.” The completed model was a two foot tall bust of the singer.
In addition to showing its young readers LEGO Michael, Bricks ‘n Pieces even included an example of the finished advertisement. The advertising headline took a jab at the singer’s widely publicized plastic surgeries; “Amazing what you can make out of plastic these days.” If there were any doubts about the reference, one needed only to read the advertisement even further
Who’s Bad? - Michael vs. LEGO
With the ad out in the open, it wasn’t long before it caught the attention of the Michael Jackson camp. What did he think of it, you might ask? Perhaps a song might say it best…
♫♪♬ He told them using my likeness without permission was bad.
Don’t wanna see LEGO Michael, you better pull that ad.
A lawsuit’s in his eyes, and he’s gonna get mad.
Don’t build it, don’t build it...WOO! ♫♪♬
Controversy hit the front cover of the November 6, 1989 issue of Today, a UK-based newspaper. According to the the article, Michael’s lawyers were threatening legal action due to the absence “...of an agreement to allow Michael’s image to be used in these adverts.” This left LEGO’s UK headquarters in an awkward spot, as they claimed their only intent was to create a “lighthearted spoof.”
Shortly thereafter, the advertising campaign was quietly abandoned and left a slough of unanswered questions in its wake. Which advertising agency was responsible for the campaign? What decisions were made in abandoning the campaign? What became of the model of Michael Jackson? As time passed, it appeared as though the ad was destined to be largely forgotten…
Shedding Light on the Mystery
Twenty-four years would pass before the story resurfaced again in the form of a forum post on the LEGO investing website, BrickPicker. In October 2013, a user by the name of “Riz” introduced themselves as a former employee of the agency responsible for the 1989 advert. He was eager to share his story, which appeared in a Brickpicker blog post the following day.
Identifying the Advertising Agency
According to Riz, the agency behind the advertisement was renowned for hip and edgy campaigns throughout the 1980s, including the Carling Black Label beer advertisements with the slogan, “I bet he drinks Carling Black Label.” Based on this nugget of information, it is likely likely the advertising agency in question was London-based WCRS. WCRS produced the Carling Black Label TV commercials, the first of which appeared in the early 1980s.
WCRS has maintained a bit of a working relationship with LEGO in recent years. A 2014 commercial for Sky Movies featured a family being transported into their favorite blockbusters, including The LEGO Movie. In 2017, they released a LEGO Batman Movie tie-in, advertising Sky Broadband.
If WCRS was responsible for the LEGO Michael Jackson advertisement, it is likely the ad was originally meant to run in toy industry trade journals. The references to the company’s positive sales record would be of greater interest to toy retailers than children, which makes its appearance in Bricks ‘n Pieces all the more unusual.
Michael vs. the Advertising Agency
Riz claimed the agency received a cease & desist letter signed by Michael Jackson two weeks before the campaign was slated to officially begin. If the agency pushed forward with the campaign and refused to destroy the model, Michael threatened legal action for defamation of character. Executives complied with Jackson’s demands, including the agency’s account manager who called for the destruction of the model.
Relics from the Campaign
Evidently, the account manager wasn’t prepared to throw away the entire model and decided to keep the head as a trophy. Several years later, he gave the head to Riz as a gift and Riz used a photograph of this head as his avatar on Brickpicker. Although the model in his avatar was missing a few pieces of “hair,” it looked identical to the one used in the original advertisement.
This image lended an air of credibility to Riz’s story, though certain parts of his account remain difficult to verify without adequate documentation. Riz claimed to have an example of the ad and the original cease & desist letter from Michael Jackson. At this point and time, it appears as though the advertisement was removed from Brickpicker, and Riz expressed his preference to not share the letter online. One can only hope the letter will surface in the near future because its contents would represent critical historical evidence
In addition to Riz’s relics, it is possible other pieces of evidence are out there waiting to be discovered. Back in 2014, Aston’s Toy Auctions auctioned off a lot of LEGO advertising materials. Among the items featured was a surviving sample of the Michael Jackson advertisement. This would be an incredibly valuable find!
Is this The End?
Although the LEGO Michael Jackson advertising campaign was abandoned, LEGO history buffs are fortunate its existence was documented in Bricks ‘n Pieces. It is possible the published images in this magazine were what ultimately lead to the threats of legal action against the agency and LEGO UK….Without Bricks ‘n Pieces, this unique piece of LEGO history might have been otherwise forgotten by time.
The LEGO Michael Jackson ad, as it was originally proposed in 1989.
In all likelihood, this story is far from over and we are eager to learn more details. If you have any further information or documentation pertaining to this advertising campaign that you would like to share, please contact us here at Brick Hello. We would love to hear from you!