The year is 1998. I’m 12 years old, and fond of wearing oversized sweatshirts with dalmatians on them. In Social Studies one day, my teacher, Mrs. G, tells the class about her imminent status of Best Mom Ever — she has scored a Furby for her daughter for Christmas.
“It was hard,” she announces, “But she had to have one.”
Sitting in my desk, three rows back, I secretly judge Mrs. G’s daughter as being very spoiled. At this point, I’ve never heard of Furbies, but soon, I am more than familiar with the singing, wheezing, (and possibly eavesdropping) robotic balls of fur. And while I don’t get one for Christmas — it’s the year my parents decide to get me the oh-so-educational 300-In-One Electronic Project Lab — I eventually do acquire one second-hand, from my friend Diana, who is too creeped out by hers to keep it.
After a week of playing with my animatronic hand-me-down, I decide I’m creeped out too and take out its batteries in a fit of terror. Goodbye, Furby.
* * *
Of course, Furby wasn’t the first must-have toy craze to sweep America. Remember Teddy Ruxpin or Cabbage Patch Dolls? And even at its peak, Furby could never inspire the same mania in parents as Tickle Me Elmo.
Tickle Me Elmo was the ‘Charlie Bit My Finger‘ of toys-gone-viral. It was trample-the-store-employee-level huge.
In the beginning, Tickle Me Elmo was conceived by inventor Ron Dubren as “Tickles the Chimp.” In 1992, the idea (and tech) was purchased by Tyco Preschool, who had a licensing play in mind. Durbren’s creation was set up as the Tickle Me Tasmanian Devil — until Tyco lost its contract with Looney Tunes.
Enter a struggling Sesame Street, reeling in the aftermath of Jim Henson’s death and the appearance (and unbridled success) of a certain purple, singing dinosaur. Tyco made a deal with Sesame Street that gave them the rights to use the characters in its soft toy divisions starting in January 1996. By July, Tickle Me Elmo was on store shelves.
What was it about the maniacally laughing Elmo doll that would go on to make it such a runaway hit? As Dubren — who’d been inspired to create his chimpanzee prototype after visiting a playground full of giggling, happy children — told the Chicago Tribune in the midst of the craze, “It’s true there had been dolls that laughed before. But it was the way I defined it. It was a doll that giggled when you tickled it, and when you tickled it more, it giggled more.”
Or, as then-Tyco exec Neil Friedman told Success, “When you played with it the first time, it brought a smile to everyone’s faces. It was a magical surprise.”
Getting the Giggles
Elmo wasn’t a viral success from the very start. Sales were good, but not great. Toy retailers were reluctant to order Tickle Me Elmo dolls for their shelves, worried about the feasibility of selling a toy that retailed for $30. At that time, Tyco was selling nine different types of Elmos. As its top-shelf Elmo toy, Tickle Me Elmo needed a boost.
That boost came in the form of a bit of innovative marketing.
After publicists at Freeman Public Relations Inc., Tyco’s publicity agent, put their heads together for a brainstorming session, they remembered the old Cabbage Patch Doll craze, and how it was helped along by then-pregnant Today Show host Jane Pauley’s appearance with a doll in 1983.
The 1996 equivalent to Pauley was Rosie O’Donnell, who had a 1-year-old son and a hit daytime talk show.
“We saw a lot of parallels,” Bruce Maguire, Freeman’s Tyco account manager, told the Wall Street Journal. “We decided to try to marry Elmo and Rosie.”
Freeman sent O’Donnell’s son, Parker, a Tickle Me Elmo, following up shortly afterward with the delivery of another 200 dolls to the Rosie O’Donnell Show producers. And that’s when the magic happened. In October, O’Donnell announced on-air that she was going to play a version of an old Groucho Marx game: Every time one of her guests that day said the word “wall” (and she had some good guests, Tom Hanks and Willie Nelson included), one of the Tickle Me Elmo dolls would be tossed out into the audience.
“That got us started,” Maguire said. Because viewers of the Rosie O’Donnell Show were primarily stay-at-home mothers of preschool-aged children — the actual target purchasing market for the giggling doll.
O’Donnell’s boost was enough to land Tickle Me Elmo at the No. 13 spot on Toy Book’s “What’s Hot” list of the 15 hottest toys of 1996. And from there, the momentum built rapidly. In November, Elmo sat on Today Show co-host Bryant Gumbel’s lap during a four-minute segment on hot holiday toys, prompting even more buzz.
Retailers started to sell out. The news media started to cover the growing trend. ”Tickle Me Elmo suddenly seemed vital to one’s existence, even if one didn’t actually know what he is, or what he does,” the Baltimore Sun wrote.
Laughing All the Way to the Bank…Or the Hospital
Then came Thanksgiving of 1996. After marking the toy down to near-cost for Black Friday, both Kay-Bee Toy Stores and Target sold out of their Tickle Me Elmo dolls within an hour. At one Target store in Nashville, it only took four minutes.
It was the official start of Elmo Fever.
Prices for scalped Tickle Me Elmo dolls soared. One New York Times article from that December stated, “The $30 dolls are so rare, in fact, that some entrepreneurs are running newspaper advertisements offering to part with one for ”$1,000 or best offer.’’ (Newspaper advertisements. Because remember? This was 1996 — eBay had just been founded a year earlier, and the people who had internet connections still had to deal with that familiar dialup screech and the fact that it interfered with their landline connections.)
There were reports of tramplings (see above), and of fights, and of desperate mothers running after delivery trucks, all for the sake of their children’s Christmas day happiness. There were even weird newscasts like the one below, in which Elmo is stranded on top of a building scheduled to be demolished, and will only be “rescued” if enough money is raised for charity.
Famous Mafiosi John Gotti Jr. also (allegedly) got in on the madness — buying a case of the dolls at Toys “R” Us. “Exactly what occurred during their visit is in dispute,” the Times wrote, “and is therefore perfect fodder for the legend mill.”
The $40 Dust Collector
While it’s clear that the nation temporarily lost their minds over a $30 toy back in 1996, the real question is, why? And also, why don’t we see this happening anymore?
The answer might just be: the internet. At least, that’s what Jackie Breyer, editor-in-chief of The Toy Book and Toy Insider (which, as an aside, has Play All Day Elmo as one of their Hot 15 for the 2015 season) told Lancaster Online in an interview earlier this month.
“Back in the Cabbage Patch days, there was no Internet,” she explained. “At that time, the only way to get the product you wanted was to go to the store, wait for the truck to show up and fight for the product.”
The world has changed a lot in 19 years. Sure, there was the Wii craze of the mid-’00s — but in that case, there was eBay, and online toy stores, and product waiting lists.
Harry Rinker, a toy and collectibles expert, also theorized that the decline in all-out toy fights has to do with the toy bubble bursting. Remember Beanie Babies, and how they were supposed to become vintage collectibles in ten years’ time?
“Ever since the collapse of Beanie Babies, the toy industry has tried to hype a hot toy every year,” he told Lancaster Online. “None of them have worked.”
This seems to be largely due to the decrease in confidence that a toy will one day become a vintage collectible.
Rinker went on to say, “What made the toys hot is the fact that adults were buying them and selling them on the secondary market for a profit.”
Which is maybe the key to the whole strange craze and begs a bigger question: “Did kids actually like Tickle Me Elmos?” Speaking as a child of the ’90s, I’ve heard no one wax poetic about their giggling, red-furred childhood friend. In fact, just listening to his mechanical laughter in the original commercial makes my head hurt.
And I don’t think it’s just me, either. Tyco quickly expanded the Tickle Me Elmo line, adding Elmo’s friends and eventually coming out with a TMX (Tickle Me eXtreme) Elmo, but none of them sold as well as the original doll. YouTube reactions of kids with Tickle Me Elmo or TMX Elmo are typically some combination of scared and horrified. Lots of toddlers let their jaws droop while watching Elmo, untouched, flail around on the ground.
Amazon reviews are tepid too, with complaints of children tiring of Elmo fairly quickly and of the dolls’ short battery life. “My daughter LOVED him,” one reviewer wrote, “for maybe a week (at best!). I now have a $40 dust collector.”
And so now, nearly 20 years later and all the more wiser, what’s the lesson to be learned in all of this?
Don’t go for toy crazes, obviously. Step back and evaluate your life choices before you decide to go absolutely batsh*t on a 20-something retail worker. Love your family, and know that you’ll have a good holiday season whether or not the perfect present shows up under the tree.
What’s the toy I remember most from my childhood? A chalkboard that my sister taught me to write cursive on.