Sophie the Giraffe teether: The French toy that's sweeping America.

How popular culture gets popular.
March 7 2011 6:49 AM

I'm French, Chew on Me

Sophie the Giraffe, the European teething toy that's sweeping America.

(Continued from Page 1)

Sophie was doubtless designed with babies in mind—there are copious places (legs, face, horns) for an infant to nibble, and the long neck is easy for a wee hand to grip. The giraffe's success, though, depends on its appeal to parents. Babies have notoriously bad taste: They are drawn to the bold, loud, and garish, and would never choose a handsome wooden rattle or a chic giraffe for themselves. Preferences are also fleeting when you're an infant. Today, your kid can't get enough of a plastic spoon; tomorrow, he's infatuated with a sock.

For those with more developed aesthetic sensibilities (and more consistent access to a credit card), an all-natural, French-made teether has a certain cachet. Sophie is fashioned from rubber "derived from the sap of the Hevea tree," its pink cheeks and caramel-brown spots are applied with "food paint," and it's put together using a traditional process "that involves more than 14 manual operations." The giraffe's back story appeals both to the kind of parents who knit their brows over chemical-laced plastic—Sophie's sales reportedly increased during the 2007 Chinese toy recalls—and those who get gooey over European eco-friendliness. The teether's packaging, which includes an Eiffel Tower doodle and the en français spelling of girafe, also signals that this is an item for cultured carpoolers. "I think sometimes the Americans are in love with France, the villages and the quaint areas," says Dumoulin-Montgomery. "When you know that Sophie is made in the Alps, it's very appealing."

Giggle's Ali Wing argues, however, that Sophie's packaging is incidental to the product's success. The company's random checkout surveys show that very few customers know the giraffe was born in France. Rather, Giggle's questionnaires reveal that most every Sophie buyer gets the teether for the same reason: moms' word of mouth. The 752 five-star reviews (of 1,080 total) of Sophie the Giraffe on Amazon, then, are the best kind of advertising for a baby product—unabashed love letters from fellow parents who lavish attention on every possible selling point. "It helps my daughter learn to grab and develop hand-to-mouth coordination," writes the user Junesbug's Mom. "I also like that IT'S NOT MADE IN CHINA!!!" shouts B. Seeman.

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Sophie's dissenters are less visible. Amazon's 63 one-star reviews warn that the giraffe's legs are a choking hazard—alas, so is anything a baby puts in her mouth—and dismiss the teether as a French-ified canine chew toy. (Dog is the third most commonly used word in Amazon's one-, two-, and three-star reviews; in five-star reviews, it's the 40th most common.)

Unfortunately for the anti-Sophie lobby, the giraffe's online popularity ensures it won't go extinct any time soon. Just as an article's presence on the New York Times' most-read list ensures that still more people will read it, Sophie's Amazon ranking is self-perpetuating—since everyone's drawn to the No. 1 product, items at the top of online lists tend to stay at the top. The giraffe is also easier to find than ever in the offline world. Along with the boutiques that made her famous, you can now get Sophie at megastores like Babies R Us and Pottery Barn Kids. Beverly Hills' Teri Weiss, who once knew the joys of having Sophie all to herself, says she's sad to have lost her cash giraffe. "It was a wonderful thing to have something so special. I really discovered it," she says. Also: "It was very lucrative."

Sophie has been lucrative for Helene Dumoulin-Montgomery, as well. To thank her for launching a massive wave of American sales, Vulli presented the master importer with a giraffe painted gold. Along with her profit-generating herbivores, Dumoulin-Montgomery also sells Chan Pie Gnon, Vulli's line of all-natural rubber mushrooms. "Some people call them the little aliens, or they call them Sophie's friends or Sophie's cousins," she says. Soon enough, perhaps, American kids will be eating a steady diet of champignons.

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