A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I were forced to confront the fact that our twenty-month-old daughter knows who Elmo is. And she likes him.
For a while, Clara has been saying something that sounded a lot like Elmo. But we convinced ourselves that she was saying “MoMo,” the name of one of her stuffed animals; for parents in denial, toddler enunciation has its benefits. But when my wife dropped Clara off at daycare and she pointed to another child’s box of diapers and enthusiastically announced “Elmo,” we couldn’t fool ourselves any longer. Despite our best efforts, commercial culture has already made a considerable impression on our young daughter. That night, when my wife gently broke the news to me, Clara, who was listening to the entire conversation, began excitedly chanting “Elmo” once again.
It was clear by the look on her face that she liked him and why wouldn’t she? It was Clara’s demographic that the child development experts at Sesame Workshop had in mind when they promoted Elmo from a bit player on Sesame Street to its undisputed star. And it is Elmo’s undeniable appeal to younger children that makes him the engine of Sesame’s marketing machine.
A search at Amazon.com for “Sesame Elmo” results in more than 2,700 products, nearly 3 times the Big Bird offerings and 9 times the Grover paraphernalia. There are, of course, the whole line of Tickle Me Elmo dolls (including Barbie Loves Tickle Me Elmo), but there are also Elmo DVD’s, Elmo video games, Elmo backpacks, every kind of Elmo apparel you could imagine, Elmo’s Punch, Earth's Best Sesame Street Organic Elmo Noodlemania Soup, Elmo cake pans, Elmo soap, Elmo steering wheel covers, Elmo sofas, Elmo humidifiers and more.
We’ve avoided all of the above – no screen time or products with licensed characters for Clara – but in the end her introduction to the cynical world of kiddie marketing came, from all things, a diaper. It reminded me of what punk rock legend Ian MacKaye said a couple of years ago shortly after becoming a father:
I am, of course, disgusted by mass marketing to children. You can imagine my horror when I discovered that it’s virtually impossible to buy a diaper—which is essentially a s**t bag—without a goddamn corporate cartoon figure on it. It’s deeply disturbing.
It is deeply disturbing. What justification could there possibly be for advertising on a diaper, other than its profitable for companies like Sesame when kids eat, play, sleep, and yes, even go to the bathroom, in their brands? Never mind that the diapers promoting Sesame Street are for babies as young as newborns (we were given a pack free at the hospital) when the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time for children under two. In 2005, when Sesame Workshop announced its new partnership with Pampers, a Sesame executive gushed, “We are excited to be able to extend the effectiveness of our brand.” In our house, we use another company’s plain brown diapers, but that hasn’t stopped Sesame from extending its brand to my daughter.
So what’s the big deal? I could tell you how my wife and I would like to make the decision about when and if to introduce Clara to Sesame’s media empire on our terms. Or that we don’t want Clara lusting after toys that do back flips or food because of who’s on the package.
But what it really comes down to this: I hate the fact that someone would exploit Clara’s capacity to love and trust, that Elmo might have an ulterior motive for captivating my daughter. The primary message that merchandising stars like Elmo impart to young children is that to love is to consume. And while that may be the kind of love that our economy runs on, I was really hoping we had a little more time before we had to deal with all this stuff.
After all, she’s still in diapers.