The Sesame Street Muppets were in a Super Bowl commercial! I love the Sesame Street Muppets, and I’m generally always happy to see them, and I know millions of Americans were thrilled when they popped up during the big game. I just wish I could get rid of the icky feeling I’ve had since Sunday. And no, it’s not because I ordered some bad food from DoorDash.
If you haven’t seen the commercial, here it is:
You can watch the other ads from the Sesame DoorDash campaign here. They’re cute and funny, and I wholeheartedly embrace the concept that Cookie Monster and Daveed Diggs are either roommates or best buddies. And DoorDash is donating money to Sesame Workshop for every order they get – how great for Grover and friends!
But when I see this commercial, it brings to mind three questions, in this order:
- Should the Muppets – any of the Muppets – be doing commercials?
- Should the Muppets from the children’s television program Sesame Street be doing commercials?
- Should the Sesame Street Muppets be promoting the company DoorDash?
Let’s start with Question 1. Every time Muppets appear in a commercial, there’s some debate about whether it’s appropriate or not. Some will proclaim that Jim Henson is rolling over in his grave, others will insist it’s not a big deal, and inevitably a few will ask why the commercial doesn’t feature every single character ever created.
I really don’t mind when the Disney-owned Muppet Show characters appear in advertising, as long as the ads are entertaining and true to the Muppet sensibility. The argument that Jim Henson never would have allowed them to promote a product is disproven when you consider the 1981 campaign they did for Polaroid instant cameras:
Jim also did a commercial for American Express that featured several Muppet Show characters, and presumably he didn’t experience any kind of internal war of principles as he cashed the checks from either of those companies. But those are the Muppet Show Muppets. They were made for commercial television, where every episode of their show brought in advertising dollars.
The Sesame Street Muppets feel different, which is where Question 2 comes in. There was a time when the Sesame Street characters never did commercials, but in recent years they’ve taken more frequent trips to Madison Avenue. Cookie Monster did that commercial for Apple’s Siri. The whole gang did that campaign for Chrysler cars a few years back. Those were perfectly amusing ads, but they still raised a few eyebrows. (The Chrysler ad starring Bert may have also raised a few unibrows.)
Sesame Street was created with purer intentions than The Muppet Show, wasn’t it? It’s evolved with the times, but the primary mission is to enrich the lives of children – whether by teaching them numbers and letters or helping them become “stronger, smarter, kinder.” Call me an idealist or naïve or stinky, but it’s just hard to reconcile that mission with selling stuff for commercial brands.
Yesterday I asked our social media followers what they thought of these characters doing commercials, and some comments pointed out that the products the Sesame Muppets are selling are unlikely to be of interest to young children in the show’s target audience. I suppose that’s true. Two-year-old kids cannot actually purchase an iPhone or a car. They could probably figure out how to place an order on DoorDash, but only if they got their tiny hands on that iPhone, which their parents bought after seeing the Cookie Monster commercial.
There were also some comments noting that Sesame Workshop needs money to survive in this crazy, mixed-up world of ours, and their advertising partners can give them some of that money. That’s certainly true, and it’s the reason for the HBO deal, which I have often defended and explained to people both online and at the food court. I can’t fault Sesame for wanting to stay in business, but I guess I hoped the HBO deal would eliminate the need for them to also do commercials. Doesn’t HBO have, like, a lot of cash? Or did they spend it all on The Flight Attendant?
Let’s move on to Question 3. Let’s go ahead say that it’s fine for some of the Muppets to do commercials, and in our unsympathetic economic reality it’s useful for Sesame Street to let their characters do commercials. How discriminating should they be about which endorsement offers to accept? Because my biggest problem with the DoorDash commercial is that it’s a commercial for DoorDash.
Not so very long ago, DoorDash was criticized for withholding tips from their drivers. The company is valued at billions of dollars, but for a long time, if you added a tip while placing an order on the app, DoorDash would keep that money instead of passing it along to their drivers. It was the kind of dishonesty that I’m pretty sure Sesame Street is opposed to. Almost a month after this controversy made the news, they still hadn’t fixed it. This past December, they agreed to pay a $2.5 billion settlement in a lawsuit.
The Super Bowl commercial presents DoorDash as a great way to support local restaurants, including “mom and pop” businesses. But DoorDash is not an altruistic organization, and it’s unlikely that you’ll hear any moms or pops raving about the company. As this article on Mashed.com tells us, “a class action lawsuit filed in New York alleges [that] delivery apps take between 13.5 and 40 percent of the revenue from each order, while restaurants only get 3 to 9 percent.” Some restaurant owners have even found themselves listed on DoorDash without ever signing up for it.
I trust the Sesame Street people enough to know they’re never going to use the characters in a commercial for beer or the lottery, but I can’t help but wish they had thought twice before doing the DoorDash deal.
Look, I know we all give our money to big corporations who care a whole lot about making gigantic stacks of money, and less about people. It’s actually pretty hard to avoid it sometimes. I order things from Amazon… but that doesn’t mean I want to see these characters I love encouraging me to order more things.
DoorDash’s partnership with Sesame Street, and the promise of donations of Sesame Workshop, have the distinct aroma of a PR trick. “See?” says DoorDash. “We’re gonna help you order from the restaurant down the block – and we’re friends with Big Bird! We must be good people!” You’ll pardon me if I don’t leap to my feet and applaud.
There are other aspects of this discussion that I haven’t gotten to yet. A common response on my social media posts was that the Muppets have been doing commercials essentially since they began, which is true. But after Sesame Street became a hit, they stopped doing them for years, and kids who were watching the show in 1975 weren’t also encountering commercials with Grover selling PanAm or whatever. And as far as I know, the Sesame characters went decades without appearing in commercials until they gradually started to do promote their own toys and other licensed products. (Muppet Wiki has a work-in-progress article with more info.)
It was also suggested that Joan Ganz Cooney, the co-creator of Sesame Street, had reservations about the characters being used in real ads. And yet, she eventually starred in an American Express commercial that concludes with her walking down Sesame Street with Big Bird.
I could go on, but I think that’s enough hand-wringing for today.
So here are my TL;DR answers to the three questions above: 1) I think it’s fine for the Disney-owned Muppets to do commercials. 2) I’m uneasy about the Sesame Street Muppets doing commercials. 3) DoorDash is not an awesome partner for Big Bird.
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by Ryan Roe – Ryan@ToughPigs.com