The discovery of Butt Elmo was a surprise at the moment when surprises are least welcome: while changing a diaper. One of the earliest lessons of baby care is that bad things happen in the open air, so speed and routine are essential. Off with the old, wipe, slip on the new, fasten—but why were the Pampers backward?
The rule was simple, I had thought. Diapers came with a cartoon character printed on the front and blank space on the back. That way, when you pulled a flat new one out of the package—working half-asleep, in dimness, possibly without lenses—you immediately knew which side was which. But I had learned that lesson abroad, where the child was born, and now we were back in America with a pack of American Pampers. And the American diapers had Sesame Street characters printed on both sides.
Specifically, on closer examination, the diapers had a rotating cast of Muppet faces on the front and a full-body image of Elmo, the red one, on the rear. Why? It was more than a practical question, though the extra bit of mental effort it took to recognize Butt Elmo and flip him to the rear never stopped being a nuisance. Conceptually, politically, and ethically: Why? How did the addition of Butt Elmo to the diapering experience make anything better for anyone?
Diapers are for catching urine and feces. They represent neither entertainment nor education. I buy the Pampers brand because once, when the child was a different size and shape than he is now, the Huggies leaked a little. I'm sure Huggies are about as good, but it is too much bother to think about switching. The Huggies, at any rate, would have Walt Disney's version of Pooh on them. Butt Pooh. That's how much thought goes into these signifiers and their deployment.
Butt Elmo seems to be an almost perfectly senseless piece of brand placement. He goes on the rear of the diaper, where the child can't see him. Then the diaper goes inside a pair of pants—or under a shirttail if the child is running around the house bare-legged and refusing to wear pants. Then, at changing time, he comes back into view just long enough to get tucked under and rolled up, his cartoon face pressed into the urine-soaked gel of the inside front as he vanishes into the trash and the next Butt Elmo takes his place.
Still, our 2-year-old has figured out who Elmo is. Toddlers are wired to pick up on symbols and messages indiscriminately. He also picks out the door numbers on subway cars and the letter N that appears when the minute hand crosses the 11 on the wall clock. When he was half his current age, I put on what I thought of as the most featureless brown sweatshirt possible, and he immediately focused on the small, bright-red brand label above the pocket.
And Butt Elmo is aimed right at this vulnerability. Elmo is a strange and unsettling addition to the world of Muppets—a Muppet-child, introduced to be more directly relatable to children than the age-indeterminate Muppets that older generations were raised on. This makes him, on the Olympus of Sesame Street, the Muppet God of Product Tie-Ins. When I checked the Sesame Workshop online store, 11 of the 20 products listed as best-sellers were Elmo merchandise: six-inch Elmo, 20-inch Elmo, Elmo zippered hoodie. If you'd like to stop using diapers at all, there's Elmo's Potty Time DVD, and when potty time is over, there's the Bedtime With Elmo DVD.
Some people love Elmo for this, or love the fact that their children love Elmo. Shortly before I encountered Butt Elmo, in 2007, he had disappeared from the diapers, only to return after customers complained. Maybe these people have Pittsburgh Steelers toilet-seat covers in their houses, too.
Joey Mooring, spokesman for Kimberly-Clark, which makes Huggies, wrote in an e-mail that Butt Pooh and his fellow Disney characters also draw the loyalty of diaper shoppers. "They love the product and packaging graphics, and it does drive brand persuasion," Mooring wrote. "The best proof of this is that if/when we change our graphics—many moms will write or call our customer service center and comment, and/or complain about the changes."
Other people were glad to see Elmo gone for the sake of a stylish, uncluttered diaper. My sympathies lie with these minimalists, especially whenever I mistake a bit of yellow squiggle-print decoration for a stray smear of poop. But hunting for a plain white specialty brand, like the eco-virtuous Seventh Generation—or, God forbid, switching to cloth diapers—means turning the desire for a marketing-free rear end into a marketing counter-statement. Butt Elmo is still the one calling the shots.
That consumerism stalks the youngest among us is not news. When I was a child, my brother and I partook in the craze for Bert and Ernie's "Rubber Duckie" record, and we enjoyed it. We would go on to own every available alien action figure from the Star Wars cantina scene. It is irritating nowadays that half the toy cars for sale are Pixar Cars-brand character cars, and it is even more irritating that the toy-train industry has been almost entirely transformed into the Thomas the Tank Engine industry. But at least these things are being marketed directly, for their own sake.
Butt Elmo, by contrast, represents a world in which it's not merely branding that's out of control but cross-branding. Every space is a promotional opportunity for something else. My son may have a non-Thomas-brand wooden train, but he brushes his teeth with Orajel Thomas and Friends training toothpaste, because that was what the grocery store had. I don't care that my son loves M&M's and asks for them by brand name. But why does the M&M's bag have to advertise Michael Bay's latest Transformers movie—a promotion for a movie derived from a brand of toys? Why, when he wears his licensed Nick Markakis Baltimore Orioles T-shirt, does the upper chest have to display a big black logo of Majestic Athletic, a parasite brand that has crawled its way onto professional baseball uniforms and merchandise?
You don't have to be Naomi Klein to resent this. This is not about locking a child away from commerce and pop culture. That white-diapered New Zealand toddler dancing to Beyoncé's "Single Ladies" on YouTube isn't cut off from modernity; he happens to live in a place where diapers still have a plain bottom.