Lego's Big Fictional Brand Is An Oil Company. Why?
NATIONALIZE OCTAN

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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.

 Lego's "Pizza To Go" set, image via Bricklink.com

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.

 A screenshot from Greenpeace's "Everything is NOT awesome" video.

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.1

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.

 A real-world Octan station in Russia, as seen on Google Maps.

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.

1

Curious to know if Lego does have an official stance on Octan, I reached out to the company's US press contact for comment. I didn't receive a reply by the time of publication.



There Are Too Many Streaming Services. Which Ones Are Worth Your Money?
REQUIEM FOR A STREAM

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Disney+ launched this week, with HBO Max and NBC's Peacock soon to follow. With Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime Video already on the market, how can you choose between streamers? Here's a breakdown of each service's pros and cons.


Netflix

Essentially synonymous with the word "streaming," Netflix is still the big boy on the block. And you probably already have access via your brother's girlfriend's parent's account — at least until the crackdown on password sharing begins.

Price: $9 to $16 per month

Pros: You'll never see a commercial on Netflix, and the viewing experience is extremely user-friendly. But the biggest strength Netflix has to offer is its massive content library:

Even if Netflix were to lose all of its licensed content, the company has prepared by building a huge catalog of original shows and movies. Plus, now that they've poached just about every big name in TV from the floundering networks, including Ryan Murphy and Shonda Rhimes, they've essentially replaced the networks as the key provider of television content.

[TIME]

Cons: Netflix's price point is slightly more costly than other streaming services, although given its voluminous library, it's easy to argue Netflix provides a solid bang for your buck. That aforementioned library will soon lose some essential titles, however, as shows like The Office, Friends, Parks and Recreation, and The West Wing are heading for other platforms.

Verdict: How else are you going to watch Stranger Things?


Disney+

Following its debut on November 12th, Disney+ is adding A Whole New WorldTM of content to the streaming game. 

Price: $7 per month or $70 per year

Pros: With a price tag that's less than half of Netflix's premium plan, Disney+ offers outstanding value. And if you have children, Disney+ is nearly a must (plop your kids in front of Mickey Mouse Clubhouse while you stream The Mandalorian). The content is never-ending:

In year one, the service will have 30 original series, 7,500 past episodes and 500 movie titles. That includes Marvel films such as "Avengers: Endgame," documentaries from National Geographic and 30 seasons of "The Simpsons."

[CNN]

Cons: While the catalog is extensive, not every Disney title seems to have made its way onto Disney+ just yet:

The content on Disney Plus will be the deciding factor that makes or breaks the service. At the moment we can't seem to find recent blockbusters like Aladdin, The Lion King or Avengers: Endgame. If Disney waits too long to put their titles on there, Disney Plus will be left feeling more like an archive of movies past than a platform for current, hit content - but all signs point to that changing in the months after launch.

[TechRadar]

Additionally, the prospects for original content (beyond "The Mandalorian") remain to be seen:

Calling Disney Plus an essential streaming service feels a bit preemptive at this point as, without a strategy to fill the well with new content, the service is in real danger of running dry in a few month's time. 

[TechRadar]

Some users also reported glitches during the Disney+ rollout, with error messages and long load times leading to frustration:

Verdict:

$6.99 is a pittance to pay for such an archive, particularly when the appeasement of one's offspring is what's actually for sale; with Netflix as a precedent, raising prices somewhere down the line is a when, not an if, and we'll continue to oblige even once the sticker price is no longer falsely deflated.

[The Ringer]


Hulu

Price: $6 to $12 per month; $45 to $51 per month includes live TV

Pros: If you want to cut the cord but *not really* cut the cord, Hulu offers a live TV subscription and DVR at a reasonable rate. And now that Disney owns Hulu, you can bundle Disney+, Hulu, and ESPN+ together for just $13 per month ($5 cheaper than buying all three services separately).

Cons: Unless you purchase the premium version of Hulu, you'll get ads while watching, which could be a deal-breaker for some. And while Hulu was built on the back of TV shows, it's unclear how Hulu's catalog will change now that NBC and CBS, among others, are creating their own streaming services. Seinfeld, for one, will be moving from Hulu to Netflix in 2021.

Verdict: If you need the option of live TV or simply can't miss an episode of The Handmaid's Tale, Hulu might be for you. But given the uncertainty of Hulu's catalog, other streaming services might be better alternatives.


Amazon Prime Video

Lord Bezos, give me your content.

Price: Included with Amazon Prime membership ($13 per month)

Pros: You probably already have an Amazon Prime subscription, meaning you already have  Amazon Prime Video! If not, you're missing out on exclusive shows like Fleabag and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, plus archive exclusives like The Americans and Downton Abbey

Cons: The user experience can't match that of Netflix or other streaming giants:

Amazon's interface can be a bit unwieldy. It varies in style and usability from one device to another, with the best experience (no surprise) on its own Fire TV media streamers, while the execution on some smart TVs is less intuitive. The web interface for Prime Video is presented as a section within Amazon's online store, rather than its own, stand-alone experience. This can be a bit jarring, especially when you're trying to figure out how to search for a movie. The big search bar at the top of the screen is the right place, but it sure does look like you're about to search Amazon.com, not Amazon Prime Video. 

Amazon does not offer multiple user profiles for Prime Video, and its video recommendation engine isn't especially sophisticated. Complaints that it can be hard to find something decent to watch are not uncommon.

[Digital Trends]

Verdict: It's probably worth a subscription, unless you have an (admittedly valid!) moral issue with supporting Amazon.


HBO Max/HBO Go/HBO Now

Max and Go and Now, oh my! 

HBO Max: HBO's newest service is scheduled to launch in May 2020, reportedly at a price of $15 per month. HBO Max will have the rights to acclaimed TV series' such as Friends and The Big Bang Theory, and will be free for a lot of users — although sorting through who exactly is eligible for a free subscription may prove challenging.

HBO Go: Unlike Max and Now, HBO Go requires an HBO subscription through cable access or Amazon Prime. It's essentially a way for HBO subscribers to watch HBO content whenever they please. 

HBO Now: HBO's original streaming platform, HBO Now allows anyone to access HBO's library, whether or not they have an HBO subscription.

As of now, there are no plans to scrap either HBO Go or HBO Now despite the impending introduction of HBO Max. "Nothing will happen with HBO Go or HBO Now," an HBO rep told Fast Company earlier this year. "HBO Max will be a distinct offering. As a distinct offering, you would not automatically become a Max subscriber."

Still, it doesn't seem viable to keep both HBO Max and HBO Now around, especially at the same price point. But there may be reasons for keeping everything separate:

So why isn't the company simply rebranding HBOs Now and Go as HBO Max, moving everyone over and cleaning up its confusing mélange of streaming brands?

The answer: It would be an operational nightmare, and probably not even feasible in the near term given the company's obligations under distribution contracts for HBO products.

[Variety]


Peacock

Set to debut in the spring of 2020, NBC's ridiculously named Peacock streaming service will include virtually all of the NBC properties you've come to know and love: 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, Cheers, Frasier, Saturday Night Live, The Office (in 2021, after Netflix relinquishes the rights). The most notable omission is Friends, which is instead heading to HBO Max.

The one thing we don't know is cost. Most streaming services land somewhere between $10 and $20, which seems like a reasonable price for Peacock, but NBC is reportedly considering making the platform free of charge (with ads, of course):

Previously, Comcast had planned on making Peacock free only to cable subscribers and Comcast broadband customers. The new plan, which is still under consideration, would be to give away the ad-supported Peacock streaming service to anyone who wants it. An ad-free product would also be available but will come with a charge, said the people, who asked not to be named because the discussions are private.

There may also be multiple tiers of Peacock to give Comcast customers and other pay-TV subscribers additional content or other benefits, said the people. But the cornerstone product will be free and ad-supported, for both cable and non-cable subscribers, the people said.

[CNBC]


Niche streaming sites 

If you just can't get enough streaming, fear not! There are plenty of niche services available for every interest. Here are a few:

  • Shudder: Owned by AMC, Shudder has enough horror and thriller content to satisfy your spooky urges. At $5.99 a month, though, it's probably only worth it if you're a horror buff.
  • Crunchyroll: Anime and manga. And it's free! (Ad-free requires a subscription).
  • Sony Crackle: A surprisingly decent lineup of movies and TV shows at no cost.

Dallas Robinson is a freelance writer living in Minneapolis

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