Will the Kevin Clash Scandal Hurt the Sesame Street Franchise?

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image: Kevin Clash sits for a portrait shoot with TIME in Oct. 2011.
Tanner Curtis for TIME

Kevin Clash sits for a portrait shoot with TIME in Oct. 2011.

The resignation of Kevin Clash – the voice of “Sesame Street’s” Elmo – following allegations of sexual relations with at least two underage boys may have short-term repercussions for the  PBS kids’ show. But in the long run, “Sesame Street’s” brand is likely to survive intact.

Few brands can match the reach of a show like “Sesame Street.” Three generations of Americans have grown up with the kids’ show, and the series and its characters – from Big Bird to Cookie Monster to Oscar the Grouch – are beloved throughout the country.

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“There are very few brands that are ‘motherhood brands,’” says branding expert Rob Frankel, describing a type of brand that “can’t be attacked because it’s 100% goodness. … They essentially can do no wrong. You saw this in the election.” Frankel’s referring to former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s pledge to pull funding for PBS and essentially place Big Bird into retirement. The Obama administration used Romney’s Big Bird comments against him in a series of relentless TV spots.

“It’s like a gun blowing up in your face,” he says. “The guy casting the aspersion gets hurt, not the brand.”

That’s why Frankel believes that “Sesame Street” will not only survive the Kevin Clash episode relatively unscathed. It could actually see a favorable bump in its ratings and merchandise sales.

Elmo has been “Sesame Street’s” most popular resident since 1996 when Tyco introduced the wildly popular Tickle Me Elmo doll. Parents went crazy for the toy during the holiday shopping season, some paying upwards of $1,500.

Today, Hasbro – the sole “Sesame Street” toy maker – brings in an estimated $150 million in annual retail sales just from Sesame Street toys, according to Gerrick Johnson, a toy analyst for BMO Capital Markets. And Elmo toys alone account for 50% to 75% of those items.

“Elmo is hands-down the most important character from a toy licensing perspective,” says Johnson.

The Clash incident may persuade some parents to avoid getting their kids an Elmo toy this year, but Johnson says it’s likely to have only a marginal impact.

“For kids asking for Elmo, they’re still going to get Elmo,” he says. “What mom is going to explain to her son why she didn’t get her son Elmo just because she’s repulsed by the situation?”

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Branding expert Frankel goes even further than that, arguing that “Sesame Street’s” fans may rally around the brand after the scandal. He cites the recent controversy involving Chick-fil-A’s president, who supports bans on same-sex marriage. Several boycotts of the chain chicken restaurant were organized this summer, but they seemed to have the opposite effect – Chick-fil-A reported an all-time sales record on what became known as Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day.

“When fans saw the brand that they support get criticized, they made it a point to get out there,” says Frankel.

As far as merchandising is concerned, however, Sesame Street seems to have a more long-term problem: Elmo isn’t as popular as he used to be. He became “Sesame Street’s” go-to toy not only because the character itself has been a hit with kids, but because it’s oftentimes much less labor-intensive than recreating the show’s other popular character – larger, feathery Big Bird.

But the last time Elmo was a true hit around the holidays was 2006, when Mattel released TMX Elmo. Hasbro — which won a deal to make all Sesame Street toys in 2009 — released a statement this week saying it was confident that Elmo would remain integral to kids for years. While “Sesame Street’s” brand isn’t likely to be permanently damaged, for many reasons Elmo itself seems in need of a serious uplift.

“In the toy aisle, Sesame Street has been in decline,” says Johnson. “The last year Elmo had its mojo back was in 2006. His best days are probably behind him.”

21 comments
KentR
KentR

This is a no win problem.  Facts are facts and  they are regrettable . its a lot like the classic Fairy tails  and what  they actually stood for  rather than the innuendo hidden in plain sight in innocent children's rhymes  that   you heard  when kids skipped rope  or played in the yard from  decades ago..   This is the current scandal related to innocence..   check the history of Jack Sprat Poem and what it was based on..    read history and you see it repeats itself.. in media..  from the days of word of mouth  to print  to broadcast  its just a lot faster now than  in the dark ages  when life had less value than today..  Re read  A Christmas Carol  in the original text  or Oliver Twist    and see History  again  yesterday  is today  only a bit slower paced and harder work for the individuals trying to survive.. gleaning food from the corners of the farmers field  not at the food bank    While this does not attempt to solve the problem  it does  attempt  to show human history recycles Morals fade and are restored time to time or appear to  twist was in the Victorian era  where the appearance of an ankle was risky and wild..  unless you were part of the poor  then  it was Low class  to wear the rags you could find  to cover yourself best you could..  Its life  do the best you can with what you have been given or have earned (skills given by your maker refined by practice) so  even when "you earn it" it is given to you  in reality.

waterthrush
waterthrush

Hey Josh. The Obama administration didn't produce ads for the President's re-election. That's handled by his re-election campaign.

WienersPeener
WienersPeener

Actually, they should turn it into a positive by having Elmo come out of the closet and gay marry Oscar the grouch. They can then join forces with the ACLU to file an anti-discrimination lawsuit against Gordon and Maria, who will send Big Bird, Snuffleupagus, and Grover to square off in a sign-holding street protest. Then the NYPD shows up and shoots them all dead. The end.

JesseJones
JesseJones

"Three generations of Americans have grown up with the kids’ show"

“When fans saw the brand that they support get criticized, they made it a point to get out there,” 

A 'generation' is generally classified as a 25 year period. Sesame Street has not been around since 1937.. And Chik-Fil-A was about gay marriage, not pedophilia, which is alleged in the Clash case. The author clearly has an agenda he is attempting to advance ..

salinaj79
salinaj79

I think pedophiles like Mr. Klash,  Eddie Long, & Sandusky are count into a counter culture shift where they can no longer pray on younger men and expect the young men to keep the secret any longer. This is can be credited to the Gay Civil Rights, people are no longer holding on to their secrets in shame. Klash and Long at least waited until they got a little older. I am still shocked on the number of grown people both gay and straight that chase after children and people far to young for them. It is not about sex but control. I now look at relationships with significant age difference with a new paradigm. So pedophiles beware, same sex pedophilia is no longer just being swept under the rug. You better stick with grown folk!

SmoothEdward1
SmoothEdward1

Well, he has had his hand up Elmo's ass all of these years. We should have guessed.

mrxexon
mrxexon

Short answer, no.

Sesame Street hit it's peak in the 1970's and has been in slow decline ever since. Kids have so many options now, SS just blends into the din.

"Animal".  Now there's a puppet after my own heart...

x

PamelaJGreen
PamelaJGreen

Really good article, I found at least 4 leadership lessons we can learn on this side of the issue.  It appears that when the general public loves you, they LOVE you no matter what.  Sesame Street should be proud of the brand it has built to sustain such a blow...but time will truly tell.  www.pamelajgreen.com

David Houghton
David Houghton

Roger - That's the dumbest thing I've read all week. Congratulations.

Roger Layton
Roger Layton

Liberals just love their gay pedophile predators.

Roger Layton
Roger Layton

Liberals just love their gay pedophile predators.

Allison Dean
Allison Dean

He shouldn't be around kids...there is something a little creepier about knowing the man behind the puppet was a rapist. (underage "consensual" still equals rape) how many more are like this...

Allison Dean
Allison Dean

He shouldn't be around kids...there is something a little creepier about knowing the man behind the puppet was a rapist. (underage "consensual" still equals rape) how many more are like this...

David Houghton
David Houghton

Is it really a "scandal"? People do bad things, they get caught or get accused, and we move on.

Eather M Greene Henry
Eather M Greene Henry

No. Because children of that age don't know Kevin Clash. They might notice if Elmo's voice is different. The parents I've spoken too are sad, but not angry.

gracechiou88
gracechiou88

 How many other educational programs for pre-school children are there in the States?  I logged into Sesame Street web page and the games are not too attractive.