Elmo’s Head: An Analysis of Recalled Fisher-Price Toys

The onslaught of recalled toys and food originating from China continues with yesterday’s recall of nearly 1 million Fisher-Price toys sold between April and July 2007, due to lead paint.

An Associated Press article cites 83 types of toys in the recall, but I found thumbnails for 81 on Mattel’s (Fisher-Price’s) recall web page (also displayed below).

Photo of the Stacking Rings Elmo toy.

When looking at the sea of toys, one thought pounded in my head: I would never have bought any of these products for my daughter.

  • Elmo’s head on a toy power drill
  • Elmo and Cookie Monster on a shape sorter
  • Elmo’s face on a 6-key musical keyboard
  • Cookie Monster on a toy saxophone

What does Cookie Monster have to do with sax music? When we buy out-of-context licensed characters we are following a marketer’s agenda for our children.

What constitutes an in-context toy? A Thomas the Tank Engine train toy. Winnie the Pooh books. A Dora the Explorer butterfly net. I would not buy a branded butterfly net when a non-branded version is available, but at least it’s exploration-themed.

I wrote about this topic last year when I saw an Etch-a-Sketch cheapened by Dora the Explorer imagery. Either you believe the over-commercialization of childhood is harmful, or today you are probably shipping some of your toys back to Fisher-Price/Mattel for replacement.

For my own time-wasting edification, I was going to create a pie chart showing the small percentage of recalled toys that did not feature licensed TV characters. To my dismay, every single toy had licensed characters. Pretend I made a single-color pie and it was very funny.

In lieu of that, I wasted my time examining which characters marketers want our children to bond with.

A graph showing a breakdown of recalled toys indicating all of the toys featured licensed characters from five children's TV shows.

Pie chart showing which characters from Sesame Street were featured in toys affected by the recall.

The “multiple characters” in Sesame Street toys (represented in purple in the pie chart above) are heavily slanted toward Elmo. He is a reoccurring character in virtually every one of the toys. The first runner-up is Cookie Monster.

Graph showing the number of Dora, Dora-Related and Diego characters in Dora the Explorer recalled toys.

Thumbnails of recalled toys are below.

Please review the following web sites for official recall information:

Thumbnail photos of recalled toys.

More thumbnail photos of recalled toys.

Even more thumbnail photos of recalled toys.


17 Responses to “Elmo’s Head: An Analysis of Recalled Fisher-Price Toys”

  1. Marianne says:

    Our 2 year old has only two battery operated toys, neither of which features a licensed character. He did briefly have a talking Elmo pull-toy (handed down by a relative) but we “lost” it at the first opportunity. All of our relatives and friends know that we prefer simple toys without distracting characters, lights etc. Many seem to find this puzzling, but they humour us.

    I enjoy reading your blog for many reasons… not least of which is that you get it! Thanks for continuing to do a great job.

    August 2nd, 2007 at 8:42 am

  2. Priscilla says:

    I’m somewhat embarrassed to say that we had 3 toys on the list (toolbench & it’s parts). I too have begun to resist buying anything that has a specific character, and I’ve found that shopping at teacher resource stores provides a great selection of non-commercialized toys. I also have a child who has no interest in television, so I guess that makes the avoidance of certain charaters a lot less painful!

    August 2nd, 2007 at 9:23 am

  3. Kay says:

    i appreciate the thumbnails. i don’t see the elmo tool bench as part of the recall, though.

    i’m actually not ashamed to say we have about 8 of the pictured toys. To me, it’s just part of their role playing. Plus they’re all gifts.

    August 2nd, 2007 at 9:56 am

  4. Priscilla says:

    The toolbench that we have is on about the 7th line in the above thumbnails. I guess I see these toys as a problem mainly when parents are knocking each other over each holiday season because their kids have to have the latest battery-induced-shaking red ball of fur. I do find this an interesting topic, though.

    August 2nd, 2007 at 10:09 am

  5. Michelle says:

    Interesting topic! The only reason that it is only licensed toys however is that Fisher Price outsources its licesced toys to other factories, while its unlicensed toys are produced on one of the most hi-tech, strictly regulated and great toy factories run in China. It was featured in the NYT just last week. Here’s a link…please make note of this in your original post…fisher price makes some great toys, which are developmentally appropriate, not battery operated and not licensed.

    August 2nd, 2007 at 10:19 am

  6. AJ says:

    Michelle, that’s an interesting news article. Being a publicist, I’d like to know the inspiration for the New York Times talking to the company on that topic in close proximity to the announced recall. Still, to be fair, the safety issue was detected relatively quickly instead of a year or two from now.

    I do own some Fisher-Price products, such as:

    Kid-Tough Digital Camera (bad review)

    Medical Kit (good review)

    Healthy Care Booster Seat (the only one I would ever recommend)

    But the image I have of Fisher-Price in my mind isn’t defined by those products. When I think of FP, I envision licensed TV characters slapped on toys to make them sell better. Walk down the toy aisles at Target or K-Mart. Licensed characters are a recipe for mediocrity. Most often, they don’t need to be there. A kid doesn’t need Elmo’s face on a power drill to role play as a construction worker or model after a parent fixing things around the home. Elmo’s face sells the product and reinforces Sesame Street’s presence in the child’s mind. Those are commercial goals, not my goals as a parent.

    August 2nd, 2007 at 10:42 am

  7. Michelle says:

    I think the reason for the article, however coincindental it is, was to follow up on all the Thomas backlash and to highlight a company that was supposedly doing it “right.” I see your point about Fisher Price, and looking at it that way I must agree. Personally I don’t have a problem with my girls enjoying Sesame, Muppet or Disney characters…I do however share your view about a power drill with Elmo’s head on it…whats the point other than to sell, sell, sell! I love toys that feature familiar characters for my girls to role play with ie. learning curves new playtown line which features figures of sesame and other characters that they can have fun with and pretend without sound or recorded voices and they can explaore using purely their own imagination. As parents it is our job to make effective choices when choosing playthings for our children. Truthfully many things on the market aren’t age/developmentally appropriate and even though fisher price emblazons their toys with characters, their toys are always appropriate and hold up well!

    August 2nd, 2007 at 11:41 am

  8. STL Mom says:

    One issue with licensed characters on toys is that my kids often outgrow the characters before they outgrow the toy. My daughter isn’t too tall to ride her Disney Princess scooter, but she doesn’t like the princess theme anymore. Planned obsolescence, anyone?

    August 2nd, 2007 at 1:30 pm

  9. clothdipes4us says:

    personally i have about 5 or 6 of these toys but all of them are older ones that i picked up ultra cheap at garage sales or thrift stores. although my kids like these toys (theyre all seasame street) i actually bought them for myself, lol, i know i’m an adult but they are fun….. my kids actually prefer their barbies, little cars and blocks…. though the peek a boo blocks are all of my kids faves! i think (not certian) these are fisher price toys too….

    August 2nd, 2007 at 7:35 pm

  10. Kaely says:

    We don’t have any of these toys. Character toys are not my thing. Even so, I’m getting to the point where I want to lead test everything before I bring it home. Any one have a source for testing supplies?

    August 3rd, 2007 at 6:17 am

  11. Sarah says:

    Just the other day it occurred to me how weird it is that Sesame Street characters are all over merchandise, while the show itself is on Public Television (is Dora, too? My son is only 9 mo so I don’t know yet). I just think that’s kind of a disconnect…

    August 3rd, 2007 at 9:36 am

  12. Lisa Mandriota says:

    If you go online to the Mattel site, it says that the tool bench is recalled but it says “(Canada Only)”…..so i guess if you’ve bought it here, you are fine……

    August 3rd, 2007 at 6:13 pm

  13. Dragon says:

    I’m not crazy! I hate all the licensed character merchandise marketed to children. Not only are most of those toys garish and ill-made, but I think it’s terribly underhanded to market to a population segment that doesn’t even have it’s own cash flow. I’ve seen (and when I was a child, been involved in) more tantrums and arguments related to toys than probably most other issues combined. It really is rediculous that it’s actually difficult to find toys that encourage unstructured, imaginitive play.

    August 3rd, 2007 at 10:57 pm

  14. Mark says:

    We don’t have any of the stuff on the list but it’s more by coincidence, since my extended family thinks all that stuff is fantastic and give him character licensed stuff at every opportunity. Like Marianne’s family above, they find my push away from it puzzling, but they mostly figure I’m being silly and blow it off.

    And as for the lead testing kits, I seem to remember an old blog posting either here on Thingamababy or possibly on Brett’s Dadtalk.typepad.com site about relatively inexpensive lead testing kits ($15-20?) being available at hardware stores. That might be a good place to check

    August 4th, 2007 at 10:26 am

  15. Papergirl says:

    Hello. I found this blog when I did a search on Playtown figures, which I recently discovered and was completely charmed by. They are reminiscent of the old-school Fisher-Price little people that I used to play with as a child.

    As I read more of the comments to this post, I am struck by the conspiratorial motives we’ve assigned the toy companies who produce licensed character products. Aren’t the decision makers at these companies also parents, friends, neighbors, and family members — just like the people who continue to purchase these toys and perpetuate the demand? I guess what I’m saying is THEY are WE. Let’s stop demonizing each other.

    Furthermore, let’s let our kids play with whatever toys capture their imaginations. Last I checked, Elmo never did drugs, shot anyone or voted for George Bush. Does the fact that Children’s Television Workshop wants my son to like Elmo diminish Elmo’s good qualities? I say no. I don’t think the fact that my son worships at the altar of Thomas the Tank Engine as a three year-old is going to prevent him from growing up to be a functioning, happy and healthy member of society.

    And another thing. Kids who’ve never even met a licensed product throw huge tantrums over toys, too. Just different ones. Without batteries.

    September 4th, 2007 at 8:41 pm

  16. Alyssa says:

    Thanks for the info.!

    October 9th, 2007 at 10:39 am

  17. Wendy says:

    For what it’s worth, as much as I prefer educational non-licensed toys, I would rather buy Sesame Street toys for my son and help support the educational programs of the Children’s Television Workshop rather than a (seemingly) purely commercial character like Dora. I loved growing up with Sesame Street, and if buying Elmo toys will ensure that my grandkids will be able to grow up with it, too, then I’m all for that.

    November 26th, 2007 at 2:24 pm