You can throw numbers and figures at me all you want. You can show me charts and graphics with statistics and documents, and you can tell me about the supply and demand frenzy that surrounded this toy.
None of that matters. The tipping point, the proof, the absolute certainty that this toy was on another level was when the biggest, baddest bully in my elementary school walked onto the playground with a Tickle Me Elmo tucked under his armed and proclaimed “Yep, I got one.”
Looking like a baby was one of your biggest fears when you were in elementary school. It was right up there with demonstrating how to do a math problem for the class or someone kicking in the stall door when you were in the bathroom (Chris, you dick).
So when this mountain of a man (he looked like a love child between Big Pun and One Man Gang) rolled up to the schoolyard with a baby’s toy in his grasp, you knew that something serious was going on in the retail world.
So why was the Tickle Me Elmo toy so absurdly popular? Well, it’s a story that involves the Tasmanian devil, Rosie O’Donnell and a toy monkey. Stay with me…
Two toy makers named Greg Hyman and Ron Dubren created a laughing monkey named Tickles the Chimp and presented it to Tyco in 1995. It was a chimp with a computer chip inside that caused it to laugh when tickled.
Tyco had the rights to the Looney Toons brand and decided to push the concept on their characters, starting with the Tasmanian devil. They also expanded to Bugs Bunny and Tweety and were relatively successful selling them at the WB Studio store in California. Tickles the Chimp was presumably left for dead after his computer chip organs had been harvested.
Shortly after the release of the toys, Tyco lost the rights to the Looney Toons but acquired the rights to Sesame Street, and the Tickle Me Elmo was born.
In July of 1996 Elmo hit the shelves and sold as well as you’d expect any other Sesame Street product to sell, but nothing that raised any eyebrows.
But then the day after Thanksgiving hit and the toy was suddenly sold out.
Tyco had preordered 600,000 more dolls but they were gone almost immediately.
Rosie O’Donnell, who was a huge television star at the time, had unexpectedly promoted the toy on her talkshow and created an enormous demand overnight.
Supply and demand at the holiday season apparently sends consumers into an all out rage-war, because the scarcity of the product had people brawling in the streets, chasing after delivery trucks and spending their children’s college fund on this giggling little weirdo. Literal stampedes of people were throwing elbows and kicking shins to spread joy through the holiday season. A Walmart employee in Fredericton, New Brunswick was trampled by a bunch of maniacal parents trying to set a good example.
“If you’re not first, you’re last.” -Ricky Bobby
By the end of December, 1 million Elmo toys had been sold.
Tyco tried to capitalize on the success by releasing Tickle Me Big Bird, Cookie Monster and Ernie, but none of them came close to the frenzy that Elmo created.
Various re-releases were issued to moderate success and will likely be revised again as the legend of this toy continues to live on.
So, there’s your magic formula for success. Christmas, Rosie O’Donnell, and schoolyard bullies. A recipe to print money.