This is a sweet and gooey ethics tale with, I fear, a fishy center.
James Groccia of West Boylston, Massachusetts was nine years old when he told his parents that his dream gift was an Emerald Night Train LEGO Set. His parents, seeking to build his character before he could build his dream train. told the boy that he had to save up for the expensive set, which cost $100. James has Asperger’s Syndrome, which means that he obsesses about things that interest him to an extreme degree, and he made the Lego set the object of his tunnel vision. After two years of meticulous saving, he finally had enough money saved to purchase his prize—-and discovered that it had been discontinued. Now the Emerald Night Train could only be obtained from collectors or in expensive online auctions, costing far more money than James had saved. The boy was devastated.
At the suggestion of James’ Asperger’s counsellor, his mother helped him write a letter to LEGO, explaining his devotion to the toy and asking if the company could track one down for him. It responded, with regret, that indeed the Emerald Night Train LEGO Set was out of stock and was no longer made. Then, a few days before James’s birthday this October, a box addressed to James arrived at the family home. Yes, Virginia, it was a brand-new model of the Emerald Night Train! The accompanying letter from Lego said,
“The Emerald Night Train is a wonderful set, so we can understand why it is your dream to own it. I commend your willpower and patience to save money for over two years just to purchase this set.We have located an Emerald Night Train for you, James, and included it in this package! I am sure you will enjoy building it and cherish your time playing with the train. Fans like you are why we are so lucky as a company. Who knows, maybe you will be working for The LEGO Group one day! You certainly have the heart and passion for our bricks to do so! Happy building, James!”
Naturally, and I’m sure without any encouragement from LEGO, the Groccia family made a video of the ecstatic James opening the box, and put the display on YouTube, titling it: “Why LEGO is the BEST Company in the World.” Meanwhile, his mother gushed with praise for the toy giant, writing, “This great, great company went above and beyond to make the dream of a child come true. It’s rare these days that a company will respond in such a generous and personal way and we are very surprised and grateful.” The local press, of course, has featured the heartwarming tale of the little boy “whose determination made his dreams come true.”
I would really like to believe this story happened as it is being represented, but I just can’t. There is no rule or principle that says that a kind and generous act is any less so because it benefits the actor as well as the beneficiary, so LEGO deserves credit for its conduct in helping a little boy facing a great disappointment. This is capitalism at its best, serving the profit motive and virtuous ends simultaneously. Nevertheless, I refuse to believe that LEGO wasn’t revved up to exploit the good publicity from its good deed well in advance of sending its package to James, and I very much doubt that his parents weren’t completely in on the scenario from the start. If they were not, then they are despicable, rather than just being poseurs.
Think about it. They made their child save for two years to buy the toy he wanted. He has a form of autism that makes this kind of disappointment especially keen. Because it was discontinued, buying the toy would have cost twice what the boy had saved, maybe a bit more. So what? Why didn’t his parents just buy him the set on eBay? “There were some available on eBay and Amazon, but they were over $200. That was just too much,” Karen Groccia told the press. Too much? Their 11-year-old emotionally-challenged child saved half of that over two years, and it’s too much for his parents to match a little boy’s savings so his diligence and thrift buys him something better than disappointment?
What is the matter with these people? Ward and June Cleaver would have thrown in the extra hundred bucks to buy the train after the Beaver had dutifully scrimped and saved the amount that was supposed to buy it. Jim Anderson (“Father Knows Best”) would have bought it too; so would Chet Huxtable (The Cosby Show)…heck, Herman Munster would have spent the hundred bucks is this situation! The Groccias figured out a way to save both their son and themselves the money and get a big corporation to turn the trauma into a marketing bonanza—fine. They get points for cleverness. But either they are lying about LEGO responding spontaneously (and the Groccias just happening to have the idea of making a video of James opening the package), or they are uniquely hard-hearted parents of a mildly autistic child who was rescued from undeserved unhappiness by a big corporation that knows how to make itself look generous while it is simultaneously bolstering its brand.
But, hey, Groccias: congratulations on figuring out how to avoid spending that extra hundred bucks or so to save your young son from disillusionment and disappointment. I think it’s likely, based on this incident, that he’ll have plenty of both down the line.
UPDATE 1: Additional research reveals that Mr. Groccia is a professional photographer and videographer, making it increasingly likely that “poseur” is the fair descriptor, and not “despicable,” which I hereby retract. You are welcome to believe that someone who regularly makes corporate promotional videos just happened to make one called “Why LEGO is the Best Company In the World” without any quid pro quo from LEGO that included a free rare LEGO set for his kid, and maybe that’s what happened. I think that’s a stretch, and I think the heart-warming story was a concocted, carefully-planned marketing ploy where everyone won–LEGO, the Groccias, and their child—except for the little matter of misrepresenting what really occurred to the media and the public. That’s called lying, and its still unethical.
UPDATE 2: A mutual friend of both Ethics Alarms and the Groccias has taken the time to explicate the situation, and it turns out that all is as it was originally represented after all: heart-warming. More here.
Facts: Coulter Press
Source and Graphic: Daily Mail
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