My favorite Lego set is not the Millennium Falcon, not the cool Rock Raiders Granite Grinder, not the "Back to the Future" DeLorean time machine a friend bought me for my birthday. It's a little red-roofed pizzeria.
I remember as a kid I had this thing put together for a lot longer than other sets of its size. Even after I dismantled it for parts, the pieces stickered or printed with the pizzeria signage would jump out at me while I rifled through the large Ikea tubs my parents got me to keep the bricks off my bedroom floor. I'm pretty sure I learned about pizza peels (here represented with a boat oar piece) from this set. The pizzeria had an identity all its own — if I used that red wedge of a roof in anything else I built, or especially that red-and-green umbrella, I'd always know that what I built was fundamentally part-pizzeria.
There was another inescapable red-and-green motif in my collection of bricks, and I never really gave it much thought as a kid: Octan, a fictional oil and gasoline company Lego created for its "Town" and other realistically-themed sets. Octan operates gas stations. Octan fuels up all the airplanes. Octan even sneaks its way into other themes. In a typical Lego city, a minifigure is in business for themselves, working for the government or in the pocket of Octan.
Lego has dabbled with other fictional brands, more so in recent years as Lego's design has evolved to include more specialized parts with stickers and prints: here's a racing motorcycle co-sponsored by Octan and a fake telephone company, and some "Xtreme" sport vehicles plastered with brand livery. Lego has also signed short-term deals with companies like McDonalds and with real car brands (and, by extension, their sponsors) in themes like "Speed Champions." Still, Lego has made well over 100 products featuring Octan in some way or another, many of those being sets where the main build is an Octan vehicle or building.
"The Lego Movie" went ahead and embraced the dominance of Octan, turning it into the antagonist Lord Business's (Will Ferrell) evil mega-corporation. Which, spoilers (c'mon, "The Lego Movie 2" is out this week) is really a sort of proxy for the way a kid's dad (also Will Ferrell, in live action) maintains megalomaniacal control over his pristine Lego collection. When I first saw "The Lego Movie" in theaters, I couldn't believe I was seeing Octan used to prod at capitalism — we're told Octan makes everything, including "all history books and voting machines" — in a kids movie that's literally based on a mass-produced, globally-distributed toy. The reveal of the real-world story paralleling the movie's main plot defangs this a bit (worth it for the way Ferrell delivers the line "the way I'm using [Lego] makes it an adult thing"), but the Octan megacorp gags in "The Lego Movie" also serve to distance the fictional brand from what Lego invented it for: as an explicit stand-in for real oil companies.
In the '70s and '80s, when printed pieces and stickers were much less common, Lego partnered with Shell and Exxon to use their real brands in regular "Town" sets. Octan was created as a substitute, mainly for Shell, in 1992. Lego did not end their relationship with Shell then — a few more promotional Shell sets came out in the late nineties, followed by more in the 2010s. After the release of Shell sets in 2014, Greenpeace launched a campaign capitalizing on "Everything is Awesome," the earworm Tegan and Sara single from "The Lego Movie," pressuring Lego to drop Shell as a partner because of Shell's insistence on drilling for oil in the Arctic Ocean. Funnily enough, in Greenpeace's video you can see Lego oil trucks with Shell stickers slapped on that are quite clearly just Octan sets.
Lego dropped Shell that same year. This was not the first nor the last instance of an oil company using toys as part of its branding and marketing strategy — Hess Corporation has been producing collectible toy trucks since the '60s, and Chevron leveraged a series of memorable ads from the animation studio behind "Wallace and Gromit" to sell collectible cars of their own throughout the '90s and '00s.
As of this year Lego is still releasing sets featuring Octan. In the last decade, they've occasionally stylized the brand as "Octan Energy," indicating that the brand is diversifying its holdings (there's even an Octan-branded wind turbine set). Good luck trying to tell if this is some wry, tongue-in-cheek commentary on the greenwashing real oil companies engage in, an attempt to lightly update the Octan brand to be more in line with Lego's own corporate ideals or simply a straightforward attempt to reflect the changing nature of real-world branding in Lego's product offerings.
In a bizarre turn of events, real gas stations bearing Octan branding were found operating in Russia as recently as early 2018. Of course, these stations are violating Lego's copyright on its fictional brand, but in a weird way you can see this as the ultimate testament to Lego's cultural influence: It created a fake brand so plausible that it crossed over into reality, and we know so little about how that came about that it might as well have happened spontaneously.
I don't think Lego's doing something wrong by sticking with its fictional oil company — at least, not any more wrong than continuing to produce petroleum-based plastic bricks until they can fully switch over to plant-based materials. Potentially, Lego could quietly retire Octan and forge an ongoing partnership with a renewable energy company (they just partnered with Dutch wind turbine makers Vestas on a one-off set).
I'm really just fascinated by what advancing this one fake oil brand says about Lego and its relationship to the world; rather than let Pizza Hut and Dominos duke it out for who gets to be the official Lego pizza brand, or come up with a fake pizza chain like they came up with Octan, Lego goes with mom & pop pizzerias. Same for most other kinds of businesses. Sure, Lego gets in on plenty of lucrative brands with Star Wars, Marvel, DC Comics, "Overwatch," Harry Potter, "Minecraft" — the list goes on — but in themes mirroring our brand-saturated world, the only brand Lego has regularly given the spotlight to over the last few decades is Octan.
Well, that's not technically true: The Lego brand is always there. I don't mean this in the literal sense of how every brick bears the Lego name, or even in the meta sense of Lego sets based on Lego's own stores. As a creative medium for art and play, Lego asserts its own brand at all times. Lego used to hold a patent on the critical mechanisms by which the bricks stay together, and even with scores of both legal and copyright-skirting competitors in the world Lego is far-and-away the dominant brand amongst, in the words of Will Ferrell in "The Lego Movie," "interlocking brick systems." Even if other companies can match Lego in terms of piece quality and variety, they're at a disadvantage to compete with Lego at a significant scale by name recognition alone.
You can easily take your Lego collection and choose to imagine a world without Octan — its as easy as swapping a few bricks and leaving off a few stickers. You could make your Lego city one with a nationalized oil industry. You can build a Lego city that's oil independent by erecting wind farms and solar panels and connecting districts by public transit. You can ditch the generic yellow faces and populate your city with minifigures of all races living in equitable harmony.
Anyone can use Lego to imagine a world that is substantively different from our own, but whenever a person creates with Lego, in a sense they are prevented from depicting a world without Lego in it. You can, of course, mix together bricks from different companies, but you can't really use Lego or any other commercial toy brick system to imagine a world utterly free of branding. You could build a whole model anarcho-syndicalist colony with Lego, but there will always be a big asterisk hanging off that act of creation so long as Lego is a brand — something to be protected and enforced for profit — and not merely a thing. There can be a Lego without Octan, there can be Lego that isn't dependent on oil, but the most difficult thing to imagine of all is what Lego is when anyone can make Lego itself, not just make things with it.
In the meantime, you can always grab some "poe-leesh remover of nye-eel" and get to work on nationalizing Octan.