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The Power of Elmo

Updated on March 4, 2012

Which came first: the toy or the baby?

Who would've thought that something so cute and harmless could develop into something so powerful and dangerous in the world of advertising?
Who would've thought that something so cute and harmless could develop into something so powerful and dangerous in the world of advertising? | Source

The Power of Elmo

It’s amazing how powerful and defining one image can be to a child. Take for example the Sesame Street character Elmo. He has always been playful and lovable to almost every child that has ever watched this kid’s morning show. However, it wasn't until Elmo was turned into a talking doll and promoted worldwide by the show’s advertisers that Elmo’s character and influence grew to unimaginable heights. “According to a recent story in USA Today, children influence nearly $1.2 trillion of household spending every year” (Hagelin 2011). With this knowledge, just at the peak of each holiday season, Sesame Street’s advertisers have found new and better ways to recreate Elmo’s image, thereby causing chaos and panic as every parent races to buy the doll in time for Christmas. Elmo went from just talking, to singing, to dancing, to playing the guitar. Who knows what he will do next! Sesame Street advertisers have made sure to keep Elmo’s fans excited and wanting for more. So, what’s the lesson behind this story? What is the secret formula advertisers use to market products to children? Is there anything new advertisers should watch out for? In my opinion, both the lesson and secret to advertising to children is a matter of common sense: keep it simple. Just like when a 2 year old would rather play with the box and tissue paper than the present that was inside, so should advertisers remember that young children are more amazed by a giggling fuzzy doll than a fancy video game with a bunch of graphics. Even older children are often not fooled by glitz and glamor that some products use to hide their shortcomings. Oh yes, and don’t forget, there is also the parent-pleasing effect (a term I have coined) which all advertisers need to make note of. Just know that sometimes the best answer to advertising to children is the easiest one.

First of all, in order to understand how to advertise to children, you must know what advertising is first. Advertising can be defined as “the structured and composed nonpersonal communication of information usually paid for and usually persuasive in nature, about products (goods, services, and ideas) by identified sponsors through various media” (Arens 2011 p.5). What does this all mean? In laymen’s terms, this simply means that advertising is the tool companies use to display their products to potential buyers through various outlets. Because children’s characters, such as Elmo, are more than just a face, companies have several different choices for advertising their products. There is print, electronic, and digital media (just for example). When the first talking Elmo came out, advertisers used all 3 of these forms of media to get the word out about their product. This is very common when it comes to advertising to children. Just think for a moment, can you name one toy that is only in a Wal-Mart flyer and not in a television ad or radio commercial? Can you think of the last time you were on Facebook and didn’t see a pop-up advertisement related to a kid’s product? The reason you most likely are having a difficult time naming a product is because advertisers understand that in order to reach this specific demographic (children), they must use multiple forms of media advertising. Unfortunately, when you advertise through multiple chains of the media and at the same time to certain demographics (i.e. children), you, the advertiser, must deal with certain obstacles and challenges.

The truth is, when you are advertising to children, you are not just advertising to them, but you are also trying to get their parents’ attention and approval as well. This is your first obstacle as an advertiser to children. The child may get excited over the 30 second television commercial, but the parent will be the one to read the bold Target ad showing that giggling Elmo is on sale this week for $29.99. “With more than 400 brands recognized by the average 10-year-old, the challenge for marketers is to ensure their brand’s product is attractive to both children and parents” (Thomas 2008). Parents are the ones who shop and buy children products online, and listen closely to radio commercials that discuss weekend sales. More importantly, parents are the ones who read the fine print and reviews about the products they buy for their children. No parent would ever knowingly buy a product for their child that would harm them. Nowadays, with all the reports in the media about recalls of children’s products, parents are paying even closer attention to outside sources, such as Consumer Reports. It is important for advertisers to find the right combination of cuteness and/or coolness for the kids to go with safe, educational, and affordable for the parents. Unfortunately advertisers often find out that it is not always possible to please both parties 100 percent of what they want. When this happens, it can often spell disaster. “Getting the balance right between the two groups is not only complicated, but also carries with it risks of litigation, controversy and negative associations, should a particular campaign backfire” (Thomas 2008). One specific example in which this happened was when a boy named Daniel Petric shot and killed his mother and wounded his father over the famously violent “Halo Three” video game. Daniel’s father was against his son playing the game and had forbid him from playing it. However, he did not know that his son had become dangerously addicted to playing the game. Ironically, even though Daniel was sentenced for his crimes, lawmakers still did not see this event has evidence enough to change how video games are marketed to young children. On August 2007, “a federal judge ruled a California law to label violent video games and bar their sale to minors was [is] unconstitutional” (Military Times 2011). So now advertisers can still market and sell violent products, but, in most cases, it is still the parent who has the buying power. It is also the parent who how the litigation power for when things go wrong, as in the Daniel Petric case.

Other than consideration for their parents’ concerns, what else should advertisers be aware of or take note of when marketing to children? One important detail that advertisers should note is the professionals and their studies who object all together to the concept of marketing to children. “In a recent article, Alex Bogusky, founding partner of Crispin Porter & Bogusky, said it is difficult to find any redeeming value in marketing to children; In fact, he sees the process as destructive” (Nicholson 2010). What do you suppose Bogusky meant when he said that? If I were to guess, I would say that he was implying that children are too young and unknowing to even attempt to market to, and Bogusky is under the belief that by attempting to market to children you are purposely preying on their impressionable minds. Well, for the most part, Bogusky is right. Kids are impressionable and young kids are too young to market to, but this doesn’t mean that their developing minds don’t grasp the concept of “I want,” or “I like.” When a 2-4 year old sees a commercial for a singing Elmo doll, they want the doll simply because they like it. Nothing more. Nothing less. It is just the same as if you were to let them watch the television show and they were to see the Muppet version. Don’t you think the child would want to hold Elmo the Muppet also? However, the Bogusky study did have some interesting information in regards to how advertising to children is handled in other countries. “Some countries have taken the legislative route to protect minors; Sweden, Ireland, Greece, Italy, Denmark, and Belgium all have bans on advertising to children under 12” (Nicholson 2010). I find the comparison in advertising to children between the U.S. and Europe to be quite intriguing. Our country seems to place much importance on the development of infants and children, and therefore expects advertisers to compete against one another for our attention, showing us the best product and the best campaign. On the other hand, Europeans have chosen to isolate their young ones from all advertisements until they are able to make their own choices, starting at the age of 12. Which one of us is right? I don’t think either one is right or wrong. I see flaws in both views, and positive aspects about both. You can’t fully compare the marketing region of the U.S. to the marketing region of Denmark. It’s just too different culturally. The children are different.

But, luckily, not all things are bad when it comes to advertising to children. Actually, once you acknowledge the negative things, it is very easy to fully embrace what it fun about marketing new and different products to children. “Young people are often seen as early adopters for many digital and direct media technologies, according to last years (2009) Buckingham Report on the commercial world and children” (Cooper 2010). Today’s young children know more about computers and technology than most adults 5 times their age. For example, my nephew Jackson, who is just 6 years old, started playing video games and learned how to work the computer and internet at the age of 3. I’m 33 years old and haven’t played a video game since the 7th grade. The last time I tried playing a game with my nephew, he sternly told me I was doing it wrong. He stopped the game, and gave me a 10 minute lesson on how to get my character in Toon Town to move and go around. I just sat there and smiled the whole time. Kids nowadays learn at a faster pace because information is given to them faster (i.e. the internet). Advertisers need to remember this when marketing to children in the digital world and for electronic products. “Direct marketers that properly research and execute work targeting children and families may well be able to build future brand loyalty among young people” (Cooper 2010). My nephew Jackson has grown up in an Apple I-pod/pad/phone loving house. Because of this, and since he has been using computers since he was 3, there is a great chance Jackson will be an Apple fan just like his father. Ironically, that company markets to a younger generation (although not as young as Jackson), knowing that this is the way to build loyalty and to maintain an empire. The proof is in the length of the lines every time a new product comes out. Jackson may be only 6 right now, but he still has the power of choice when it comes to what he likes in a product, such as his “Toon Town” video game. “The Buckingham Report indicates that children exert a lot of influence on their parents’ purchasing activity as well as being consumers in their own right” (Cooper 2010).

So how exactly do you market or advertise a product to a child? Like I said in my thesis, one must keep it simple. A great example of keeping it simple and staying true to their company’s theme is the advertising campaign done by Tinker Federal Credit Union to promote healthy savings habits in young children. They created a “new mascot, Save-A-Tron 5000, and the SavAbles [to] help deepen [their] relationships with members age 13 and under” (Anonymous 2010). This advertising campaign may sound and seem a little silly, but it was done in all seriousness. The credit union dealt with an outside agency, Third Degree, to create all the characters that made up the mascots, and they even had focus groups to see if the program would work (Anonymous 2010). Because this campaign was not overcomplicated and was marketed to exactly the age group that was meant to be its demographic, ages 5 to 10, children understood the concept of the mascots and the program was successful. Similar to my story of the Elmo doll, advertisers understood the children’s needs by researching first and then staying within their designated market. However, I must state again, it was simplicity in the end that guaranteed the success of these advertising campaigns.

In conclusion, advertising to children is definitely no easy task. Actually, I believe it is probably one of the most difficult forms of advertising out there. People assume that researching toys and games all day is nothing but fun. However, the truth is the advertiser is not really researching the toy or the game, but instead they are researching the child and the parent and often times other studies. Whenever you are dealing with anything that has to do with a child, you need to research, research, and research. It’s like that old saying: You must dot all your “I’s” and cross all your “T’s.” Luckily, all is not so bad in the world of advertising to children. If you can remember what it used to be like as a kid, then chances are you would be good for this job. You’d remember that drawing houses out of old cardboard boxes were way more fun that playing with half of your toys, and jumping up and down in puddles just rocked! I guess what I’m trying to say is this is what kids really like, and this is what parents want to remember liking. So, if you, the advertiser, have a bright shiny new toy to sell to a 4 year old, keep it simple, and above all, make it seem a lot cooler than jumping up and down in a puddle.


Anonymous, (2010). “Tinker FCU’s Robot Lures Kids to Save.” Credit Union Times. West Palm Beach: Sep 29, 2010. Retrieved on November 26, 2011 from

Arens, W. F., Schaefer, D. H., & Weigold, M. F. (2012). M: Advertising. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Irwin.

Cooper, L. (2010). “Direct Marketing: Brand loyalty starts from a very early age.” Marketing Week. London: Jun 10, 2010. Pg. 24. Retrieved on November 26, 2011 from

Hagelin, R. (2011). “Marketing to children ever more insidious.” Special To The Washington Times. Washington Times. Washington, D.C. pg. C.8. Retrieved on November 28, 2011 from

Military Times. (2011). “Judge Blocks Violent Game Law.” Retrieved on November 26, 2011 from

Nicholson, K. (2010). “Are Children Fair Game for Marketers?” Media. Hong Kong: Jul 29, 2010. Pg. 17, 1 pgs. Retrieved on November 26, 2011 from

Thomas, J. (2008). “A parent-and-child balancing act.” Marketing. London: May 21, 2008. Pg. 18, 1 pgs. Retrieved on November 26, 2011 from


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    • IrisUnveiled profile imageAUTHOR

      Kim Langford 

      6 years ago from BOSTON

      Thanks for reading guys! I just find it so interesting how toys and characters that all of us grew up with now seem to control the younger generation, or should I say control the younger generation's parents lol. Marketing to children can be brilliant but dangerous in the wrong hands ;-)

    • CreateSquidoo profile image


      6 years ago

      Elmo is one of my favorite cartoon character in Sesame Street.

    • charmike4 profile image

      Michael Kromwyk 

      6 years ago from Adelaide, South Australia

      I love the last sentence irisunveiled. My 4 year old seems to play more with the packaging than with the toy itself! Cheers Michael


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