The Smell of Marketing in the Morning

If you're an anxious marketing manager in an industry desperate for a hit holiday-season product, where in the media might you go to hype your newest ware?

If you’re an anxious marketing manager in an industry desperate for a hit holiday-season product, where in the media might you go to hype your newest ware? It would have to be somewhere welcoming and collegial, with people who are tolerant of gimmicks and willing to embrace even your cheesiest PR ploys.

Of course: the morning television news shows! Where every company goes to sell its stuff in segments with titles like: “This Season’s Must-Have [Widget]!”

And so, Mattel’s latest “must-have” toy yesterday made its debut — “INTERNATIONAL DEBUT,” as the caption reminded viewers — with Diane Sawyer and crew on ABC’s Good Morning America. (Hey Mattel, a few months earlier and you could’ve had Couric.)

The morning show “reveal” was the next phase in Mattel’s marketing plan of “shroud[ing]” the toy “in black-ops secrecy in hopes of creating the impression that it’s a sensation before it’s even out of the box,” as the Wall Street Journal reported Friday. Happy to help with the sensation creation and to play up the “secrecy” angle, GMA ran a “surprise reveal” countdown clock on the top-left corner of the screen, ticking off the minutes and seconds until the unveiling of what Sawyer called “the hottest selling kid item for the Christmas list, we are told,” a toy that “will fly off toy store shelves.”

At precisely 7:49 a.m., Sawyer asked for “one more drum roll” before yanking that toy — T.M.X. (“Tickle Me Extreme”) Elmo — out of a metal safe and demo-ing the acrobatic, cackling creature for her three colleagues, to exclamations like, “That’s good! I like that!”, “We need him on the show every day!” and “They really delivered.” And, wrapping the segment like the commercial that it was, Sawyer said: “Isn’t it amazing? Anyway, it’s $39.99. They’re already lining up over at Toys ‘R’ Us …”

Of Mattel’s efforts to keep T.M.X. Elmo under wraps until yesterday’s unveiling on ABC, the Journal noted: “Risks for Elmo are multiple: All the hoopla could prove costly and embarrassing if the toy is disappointing. The secrecy could backfire if one of the toys slips into the hands of a reporter or a blogger before Tuesday.” (No wily investigative reporter blew the lid off this one.) Noting that “Toys ‘R’ Us’s flagship store in Manhattan’s Times Square will open an hour early for Elmo’s debut,” the Journal concluded that “retailers have bought into the [marketing] campaign with gusto.”

Also buying into the campaign “with gusto” was CNBC, which mentioned T.M.X. Elmo on four separate shows yesterday, including multiple segments of CNBC’s own GMA equivalent, Squawk Box — segments that were teased incessantly, with help from a stuffed Elmo peeking around the camera and regular announcements (“In an hour and a half, Fisher-Price [a subsidiary of Mattel] will unveil the new Elmo right here on Squawk Box”).

For one such segment, Squawk Box anchor Becky Quick interviewed a marketing expert, Alan Adamson, about Mattel’s “secrecy” strategy. Adamson predicted that the strategy would indeed work because “it is about Elmo … it is not some gimmick.” Anchor Joe Kernan begged to differ, insisting, “This is definitely a gimmick” and pointing out something that we, too, had noticed: “The problem is … this [Elmo] is more of the same, it’s nothing earth-shattering. Here we are talking about it on a business show. This is definitely a gimmick.”

Quick jumped in, observing, “I think [the gimmick] is working … It’s making us pick it up.”

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.