Elmo toys will weather sex scandal, experts say

The Elmo balloon makes its way down J.F.K. Boulevard on Thursday during the 93rd annual Thanksgiving day parade in Philadelphia. Observers of the toy industry believe Elmo toys are so popular they will survive a sex scandal that’s forced the muppet’s puppeteer to resign from “Sesame Street.” Enlargephoto

Joseph Kaczmarek/Associated Press

The Elmo balloon makes its way down J.F.K. Boulevard on Thursday during the 93rd annual Thanksgiving day parade in Philadelphia. Observers of the toy industry believe Elmo toys are so popular they will survive a sex scandal that’s forced the muppet’s puppeteer to resign from “Sesame Street.”

Elmo’s voice may be slightly changing soon, but his ultra-lucrative toy sales certainly won’t.

That’s the consensus of four toy industry and public-relations gurus following news that Kevin Clash, puppeteer and voice of Elmo, resigned from Sesame Street last week following a sex scandal that widened to involve claims from a second man who filed a lawsuit alleging that Clash sexually abused him as a youth.

The hubbub comes in the very heart of the toy-selling season. With Elmo in the driver’s seat, retail sales of Sesame Street licensed toys exceed $3 billion over the past 15 years, estimates Jim Silver, editor-in-chief of TimeToPlay Mag.com, a resource for parents on toys.

This holiday season alone, under master toy licensee Hasbro, the Elmo brand could sell $150 million worth of toys, he estimates.

But Elmo, the furry red critter whose image has appeared on everything from plush dolls to T-shirts to sippy cups, is a beloved industry icon that’s far bigger and badder than the latest tawdry scandal, analysts say.

“Elmo the character is larger than the person behind him,” Silver says. “Elmo will live on.”

While other Sesame Street characters are popular – from Cookie Monster to Grover to Bert and Ernie – none has racked up anything close to the overall sales of Elmo.

The fact that Elmo appeals to kids 3 and younger may be the saving grace, says Jonathan Samet, publisher of The Toy Insider, a consumer gift guide. “Luckily, the age group targeted won’t know about any of this.”

But their parents certainly will. Even then, most parents buy Elmo for one reason: Their kids love him. And, too, some nostalgically remember Elmo from their own youths.

The Tickle Me Elmo plush doll, which, when rolled out in 1996, giggled when squeezed, ranks among the biggest toy industry crazes of the past 100 years, Silver says.

On Elmo’s 10th anniversary, in 2006, people lined up for blocks outside the Toys R Us in New York’s Times Square to get the newest version, recalls Bob Friedland, an independent toy expert at Kaplan PR. “Elmo is up there with the most iconic names in toys,” he says. “He’s as identifiable as Barbie or G.I. Joe.”

Elmo will live on, says Ronn Torossian, CEO of 5WPR, but, he adds, “the world is a scary place when you have to beware of Elmo.”

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