The answer to at least the former question might just be a bit of self-fulfilling popularity: Since the Tickle Me Elmo slammed into our collective consciousness back in 1996, stores keep stocking each year’s new iteration based off Elmo’s popularity the previous year. And when the stores are scrambling to sell him, the public scrambles to buy him, explains Quartz.
Basically, he’s a sure thing, whether he’s Big Hugs Elmo (this year’s offering) Rock ‘n Roll Elmo, Hokey Pokey Elmo or the most popular of all time, Tickle Me Elmo.
“Retailers only buy things that have proven to sell,” one senior analyst tells Quartz. “And Elmo sells.”
Tickle Me Elmo was the first Elmo doll to really make it big, despite the fact that there were previous Elmo dolls. The difference in 1996 with Tyco’s doll is that he made noise when you squeezed him. Kids love it when you can make a toy emit sounds, it seems.
But the stores weren’t ready for the onslaught of parents, who were in turn spurred on by demanding children. Retailers didn’t stock enough of the dolls, made by Tyco right before they sold to Mattel, making Elmo scarce. Cue mass hysteria.
“The first year caught everyone by surprise,” the analyst noted. “No one wanted to be caught by surprise after that.”
In 1997, Mattel sold seven times as many Tickle Me Elmos as the year before, and a dynasty was born.
Since then, Mattel has kept up the game with new and different Elmos to entice discerning children every year and cause that panicky feeling to erupt in the hearts of parents and relatives everywhere. There was even a Tickle Me Elmo redux with TMX Elmo in 2006, who didn’t just laugh when you tickled him but responded in a different way every time.
“We said that TMX Elmo would likely be the strongest thing since [Tickle Me Elmo] and it was,” Mattel CEO Robert Eckert said at the time.
Elmo now belongs to Hasbro, after Sesame Workshop shifted its license from Mattel in 2009, and his reign is still strong. There was a slight downward tick in LOL Elmo sales in 2012 in the midst of a sex scandal surrounding the former voice of Elmo on Sesame Street, but it’s safe to say he’ll probably sell well this year.
Maybe it’s his red furriness, or that inimitable laugh, but really, no one knows why the kids love Elmo so much.
“If anybody says they know why, they’re probably making it up,” declared Quartz’s analyst source.
It’s his eyes. I could stare into their clear depths, unimpeded by rational thought, forever. Yeah, making that up. I’m terrified any doll comes to life when I’m sleeping, so count me out.