Wednesday, July 28, 2010

And so it begins: Elmo, my daughter and me

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 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.


  1. Josh, a story you may like... i am living your life, and feel my heart sink just a little each time I see how well the marketers are grabbing my little girls' thoughts and attention...

    But I thought you might like this story. We too use diapers with no brand on them and are disgusted by the branding in them.

    Recently, we were out of everything, and I had to buy whatever the store had - and they had very few choices, and I intentionally (begrudingly) chose the one that featured the movie Cars... Because I could tell it was an old bag and less chance that my kids would have 'run-ins" with the brands they needed to sport on their behinds.

    Anyway, I was furious when I opened the bag and the diapers were for the new Toy Story movie - I intentionally did not buy those. I wrote a letter to the maker and offered them two choices...

    1) refund my money or 2) pay me an agreed upon rate for using my daughter's infant behind to promote their product. I argued they pay for billboards and they could work out a deal with me too.

    Happily, they chose the former, and i received a full refund. Of course, I did not receive one for the childhood that they are manipulating but I personally was happy for this one little victory

  2. That 7th Gen unbranded diapers are the most expensive disposable diapers is nuts, and so frustrating.

    Our almost-4-year-old thinks the Sesame characters on his Pampers are just "monsters," but that's in part because we're in a rural area and he goes to a tiny preschool that doesn't allow branded toys/clothing. We're lucky--our setup is very rare and hard to have elsewhere.

    My friends raising kids in urban areas--where all space has a premium on it and usually sports some kind of advertising--have a much harder time reducing the media influence in their own homes.

  3. That's one of the reasons we cloth diaper. It's cheaper, it's more eco-friendly, it's healthier for my son's very sensitive skin, and his diapers come in plain bright, bold colors, rather than being plastered with licensed characters. What's not to love about them?

  4. @ Anon # 1. Great story - I would have loved to hear how you arrived at a formula if they chose the second option!

    @ Anon # 2: That's wonderful about your child's preschool. We had a hard enough time finding a daycare (that we could afford) where they didn't watch TV.

    @ Anon # 3: I won't defend our decision to use disposables because I'm not sure its defensible, but I will note that it was another kid's diaper that got my little girl so it wouldn't have made a difference in this case.

  5. +1 on the cloth diapers. The initial investment is a bummer (pun not intended), but they quickly pay for themselves.

    The quality of cloth diapers has really come a long way. We use them ~80% of the time (we still use disposables overnight and when travelling) and have probably had more leaks with the disposables. They involve a tiny bit of extra work - stuffing diapers in covers, a load of laundry every couple of days.

  6. I really enjoyed your story Josh, but I keep wondering what the punk rock legend Ian MacKaye would say about youre decision to censor him. Shit I say!

  7. When we had our first child 4 years ago we were also startled at the gross commercialization that starts in infancy. Sesame Street and Disney pacifiers, for goodness sakes! We were happy to find good, inexpensive, commercial free diapers at Costco and even happier to find a Waldorf School in our area that takes kids as young as two and bans all characters on clothes, backpacks, and the like. Although we allow our oldest to watch very minimal TV now - and always commercial free - I'm proud to say that he has only the vaguest idea of the characters that most kids know almost as well as their parents. We're hopeful that we can maintain that innocence a little while longer.

  8. Anon #3 here again. I don't think you need to defend your decision to use disposables, and I wasn't attacking that decision. A lot of child care settings don't even allow cloth so it's not an option for daycare. I was just saying, avoiding the commercialism is one of my reasons for using cloth. Most parents that choose cloth do so for cost or environmental reasons. Those were some of my reasons, but wanting to avoid putting cartoon characters all over my kid's bum was another reason for my decision. Certainly, though, more disposables should be available without cartoon characters on them.

  9. 1. Target diapers are SUPER cheap and come with polka dots. That's it. (Costco also is character free with generic jungle animals on them. I'm betting BJs and Sams are too)

    2. I cloth diaper 80% of the time and love the bright colors and patterns that aren't character based at all.

    3. It's never too young to start having a conversation with your kid about the power of advertising in any form. My 4yo daughter sometimes flips through magazines or sees a commercial on TV and we spend time talking about what the marketers want us to think and what we should do when we decide to buy a product.

  10. I cannot tell you how much I identify with your post. I had a similar experience when we tried to buy toothpaste when our daughter got her first two teeth at 4 months old. It took a lot of effort but I eventually found a brand w/o Elmo on it...but it was unnecessarily difficult. Why does Elmo need to be on toothpaste for kids that young!!?? People probably get annoyed or think I am crazy when I try to limit our daughter's exposure to commercial characters, and it can be very draining trying to explain/defend myself in a sea of consumers who do not use much discretion when it comes to young children. Reading this fortified my resolve that I am not alone in the way I think -- thank you.

  11. When my daughter was 5 YO (now 10) we bought a doll that she just had to have as seen on TV. It was one of those computerized dolls that you programmed and she talked and ate, etc. Anyway, we purchased this $100 doll and set to program her. My daughter had to program her because she was supposed to respond to her voice. Long story short - the doll told my daughter "you're not my mommy" and shut down. While she never got to play with the doll as stated on TV, it was the best lesson on marketing she could ever receive. She learned very quickly that things aren't what they seem. It is a lesson that carries through to this day as she views things on TV and discusses the validity of their claims.

  12. I also enjoyed the article and knowing that there are a few people out there that feel as I do wish I knew some of you in person!It is hard having all your friends be oblivious to marketing and junk food, etc.

    I noticed a Dora play house in the kindergaten room of my daughter's school when we visited prior to her starting there. Luckily after mentioning it to the school phycologist, it was removed. I also mentioned that some Dora toys were on a recall list due to high lead levels. Of course the school was not aware. It was removed from the classroom. I made it a point to them that licensed characters should not be in school.

  13. I recently got a backpack for my 2.5 y.o. daughter for a recent trip, and was so disappointed with my local Target on two counts: 1) the only kid-size backpacks had license characters and 2) there was one clear "girl" backpack (pink Dora) and a clear "boy" backpack. Maddening! I mean, I don't want to spend tons of time shopping (online or off). The illusion of choice is slightly sickening.

  14. My daughter is 21 months old. She very rarely (when she's sick, grumpy and inconsolable in the middle of the night - desperate times / desperate measures, you know) watches a Baby Signs video, and has seen Finding Nemo a time or two (also when sick), but that's it.

    We have a handful of toys and books with licensed characters, all of which were hand-me-downs. I don't a big problem with that, because without the tv/movies, Mickey is just another mouse to her.

    My inlaws watch her for a couple of hours at about once every week or two, and have a couple of old Sesame Street videos. They asked if we minded her watching them, and we said it was fine.

    Of all the possibilities, we feel like Sesame Street is probably the most educational, it's only at their house and not that often and, perhaps most importantly, the idea of just turning the TV OFF doesn't seem to occur to them, so at least she won't be watching CSI or Law & Order.

    All that is to say that about two weeks ago, she started saying "EH-MO! EH-MO! EH-MO!"

    She suddenly recognizes him on her toy phone and train and her book about smells and - yes - on the diapers of the baby we watch. (We use cloth.)

    But, wait, there's more!

    The grandparents tend to say "Do you want to watch Elmo?" so she evidently thinks that's the name of the show, and calls all Sesame Street characters "Elmo," as well as anybody red or with big bulging muppety eyes.

    It only really bugs me when she does it in public, and I figure that the other people like me are judging me for letting my kid watch TV all the time.

    I want to say "It's not my fault! It was her grandparents! It's the only thing she watches! He's the only one she knows!"

    And then I realize that, around here at least, I'm alot more likely to be judged for THAT!

  15. It seems clear that a certain amount of control over what your child is exposed to is surrendered simply by dropping him off at daycare.

    Definitely store brand products are less likely to have licensed characters. If enough parents cared about the absence of licensed characters, Huggies and Pampers wouldn't have them.

  16. it is no wonder our kids scrawl their names..or just random letters or what ever across every flat surface they see, graffitti...when everything they have seen in their whole lives is branded with some logo or image. Why wouldn't they tag? It is the reality of their world. People, brands, that "tag" get noticed, the ones with the most "tags" stay in business.---> I want to be noticed, I want to exist, I want to be accepted. (all the core of human existance) I will scrawl my moniker on this surface.

    I say Yay! for all the parents here who are trying to keep a childhood for their kids. and Persevere! it pays off. Your kids will be better humans because of it.

  17. I loved reading your post, Josh. Thank you for fighting the fight that you do, and for your unrelenting pressure to make things right.

  18. Great post, Josh. I feel you on this one! It is a long road ahead and thankfully you are in a good position with lots of info and allies. Keep on fighting the good fight!

  19. Wait until you get to panties. I find it borderline impossible to find anything that doesn't have a princess, fairy or a Dora/Kai-lan on it. I finally settled on some that came in plain white, orange, and one print with monkeys holding pom-poms and 'Cheer!' scrawled across. I figured she can't read and doesn't know what cheerleading is so this is as good as it gets. I also got her Hello, Kitty ones (I know :-P) but for now they're just cats. I really don't take her shopping so she doesn't see all the other paraphernalia with that brand. Srsly, American rhetoric is all about freedom and choice and, yet, even in liberal Seattle, I hit five or so stores, variations on a Target, but also as spendy as Nordstrom, and still cannot find the *choice* I want.

    The diaper branding didn't bother me too much, but I can't remember Elmo on them, but the pull-up phase just ticked me off. It's highly gendered with licensed figures for boys and those for girls, and for girls, the choice is Dora or princesses. Because princesses had been creeping into her consciousness anyway, she knew exactly who they were. The best way I coped with it was to say princesses are for pooping and she thought it hilarious. Even now, we see a princess and say, 'poopy.'

  20. This is a great article and I love that you quoted Ian Mackaye!