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.

Vulli Sophie the Giraffe Teether.
Sophie the Giraffe

Somewhere, right now, a baby is torturing a giraffe: dropping it, chewing it, coating it with a thick layer of drool. Despite this pattern of unprovoked attacks from the nation's infants, the long-necked mammals—rubber teethers that hail from France—are multiplying across the United States. Sophie the Giraffe is the best-selling baby product on Amazon.com, outranking a nasal aspirator called "The Snotsucker" and a nightlight shaped like a turtle. And while it's not quite as well-reviewed as Jacques the Peacock, customer comments tend toward the rhapsodic: "totally lives up to the hype"; "this is truly the greatest toy we have—truly"; "Wow! Best Baby Toy Ever!"

Josh Levin Josh Levin

Josh Levin is Slate's executive editor.

Sophie is not just a creature of the Web. "From a retailer perspective, it's the gift that keeps on giving," says Ali Wing, the founder of the baby emporium Giggle. The teether is unique, Wing says, because it's such a consistent seller—"every day, every week, every month, every quarter, every store, every state." Indeed, my informal survey of friends and colleagues with small children turned up but a few giraffe-free households. "Dude, of course we have Sophie," a new dad told me. One mother was sold on Sophie's charms by an enthusiastic clerk at a Bay Area baby store; another reported that the giraffes were omnipresent in her "bumps and babes" group in Abu Dhabi. Two people confessed sheepishly that they'd succumbed to Sophie's ubiquity—the feeling that "you're a bad parent if you have not purchased this giraffe."

In her native France, Sophie is a national icon, with annual sales (a reported 816,000 last year) paralleling the country's birth rate (an estimated 796,000 live births in 2010). But how did a 7-inch-high rubber giraffe from Europe become omnipresent in the United States?

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As the Los Angeles Times explained in 2009, Sophie began her life in America as a "status teether"—a $25 plaything for celebrity progeny. "Sophie la Girafe," which was first manufactured in Paris in 1961, first crossed the Atlantic a decade ago, at the behest of Helene Dumoulin-Montgomery. At first, the French expat couldn't convince anyone to take the imported animals out of her Southern California garage—both Toys R Us and FAO Schwarz rejected the teether, Dumoulin-Montgomery says, deeming it too expensive. For Teri Weiss, who sells $500 infant dresses at the Elegant Child boutique in Beverly Hills, cost was not a concern. In 2002, Weiss started placing Sophie in the gift baskets she creates for Hollywood stars. Thanks to celebrity endorsements—Kate Hudson's son Ryder loved to gnaw on his—Weiss was eventually selling 125 giraffes per day. "A good percentage of my income was Sophie," she says.

Over the last few years, the Gallic savanna-dweller has transformed from an elite plaything to a mass-culture phenomenon. Dumoulin-Montgomery says her sales increased from 100,000 in 2008 to 400,000 last year. It would've been 500,000, she says, if not for a Sophie shortage caused by the French general strikes. "Amazon was calling every day to make sure they had the stock," she remembers. "I had to tell them, I'm not lying, it's on the news."

While tiny thumbs-ups from celebri-babies gave Sophie her start, Dumoulin-Montgomery credits bloggers for her sustained commercial success. As she struggled to get her giraffe on store shelves, Dumoulin-Montgomery sent out free samples to mommy bloggers. "They were amazed," she remembers, and their glowing write-ups made other moms take notice. It makes sense that parenting blogs and message boards would function as a launching pad for commerce. New parents, who need to buy a lot of unfamiliar products very quickly, are understandably swayed by effusive personal recommendations. When your baby won't stop screaming, a blog post that credits a rubber giraffe with deliverance from "the fiery pits of teething hell" is an effective sales pitch.

Even so, the pricy Sophie—which generally costs between $18 to $25 online, compared to just a few bucks for a generic teether—can induce sticker shock. Simmie Kerman, a buyer for the Barston's Child's Play chain of toy stores, says she's up front about the price when delivering her sales pitch to parents: "This is Sophie, she's wonderful, people who own her turn around and buy her for their friends—she's also really expensive for a teether." Given the price, Dumoulin-Montgomery speculates that gift-givers account for the majority of giraffe purchases. (Along with its other superlatives, Sophie is also the most-gifted baby item on Amazon.) Twenty bucks is the ideal price point for a shower gift—neither chintzy nor extravagant. And even if you're buying Sophie for your own kid, $20 isn't an outrageous amount to spend on a universally beloved, child-soothing mouth-animal—it's more reasonable, at least, than springing for a $1,000 Bugaboo Cameleon Ocean special edition stroller.

Wing believes that Sophie's high price is justified. The spotted plaything, she explains, is more than just a piece of molded rubber. It is a "friend-like soothing companion that's easy to hold on to"—a teether, a toy, and a lovey all in one. A baby doesn't just shove the giraffe's head into his maw—he cradles it and squeezes it and gazes deeply into its dark black eyes. Sophie's manufacturer, the French company Vulli, plays up the Swiss-Army-giraffe angle, claiming the teether stimulates the newborn's senses: the "attention-catching spots … provide visual stimulation," the "squeaker keeps baby amused and stimulates his hearing," and the "soft texture and numerous chewable parts … make her perfect for soothing baby's sore gums."

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.

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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