Case Study

Sticks and Stones May Break Bones, but Names May Drive Up Sales When Moral Majority Founder Jerry Falwell labeled Tinky Winky gay, the charge set off a media frenzy and a strong response from The itsy-bitsy Entertainment Company, the U.S. marketer of licenses for Teletubbies. The TV program for pre-school children features four happy, infant-like space alien characters, including Tinky Winky. The media-magnet incident began with a "Parents Alert" article in the February issue of Falwell's National Liberty Journal (NLJ), headlined "Tinky Winky Comes Out of the Closet." As apparent proof of the character's sexual orientation, the article cited Tinky Winky's boyish voice, tendency to carry a purse (it's a magic bag, countered itsy bitsy PR director Steve Rice), its purple color and the triangular symbol of gay pride. The antenna on the character's head is triangular. Responding to Mixed Blessings When the NLJ article made news, "we were advised by our PR people to lay low and wait for the firebomb" to burn out, says Kenn Viselman, founder and CEO of itsy bitsy. But he ignored that advice because "we felt it was grossly inappropriate [for someone] to use the show in an evil and divisive manner. For me, the story was very frightening, not so much the subject but someone's attempt to use our show for their own political gain, when in fact it's the most innocent show." "I was willing to go toe-to-toe with Mr. Falwell anywhere," says Viselman. "I made sure to be as visible as possible." In this case, visibility meant holding a press conference and doing "106 interviews in one day." Viselman landed air time on the NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw, "The Today Show," "Good Morning America," CNN, Fox and all local news shows in New York City. In fact, he says, "a friend called and said 'You must've gotten $50 million's worth of free publicity.' It went around the globe because [Teletubbies] airs in 120 countries." The print media, including The Wall Street Journal and New York Times, also picked up the story. Although Viselman says they didn't track media impressions, they get some sense of the impact from the "thousands of clips we're still getting" at 50 cents apiece. Falwell wasn't the first to "out" Tinky Winky. The gay community had been claiming the character as its own since the Teletubbies TV show launched in Britain in 1997. For example, following their trip to the Colonies, the show inspired Village Voice's Michael Musto to proclaim the purple character gay last April. In the same month, even the mainstream press published the rumor, with The Washington Post declaring Tinky Winky gay in a trend-watch list. Gay Group Responded, Too Teletubbies' marketers weren't the only ones kept jumping by the NLJ article. The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) was first alerted by an Associated Press reporter. "Ninety seconds after that call, we were flooded with phone calls in all six offices," says Scott Seomin, GLAAD entertainment media director. At first, "we thought it was just a joke" because "the characters in that program don't have a gender, much less a sexual orientation." Seomin also had trouble taking the story seriously because "the media likes to make fun of religious extremists. They're almost a punching bag of sorts. On the other hand, sometimes [Falwell] can be his own worst enemy because he sounds so ridiculous." This story was a media phenomenon, says Seomin, using as a gauge the fact that the story made the opening monologues of both Letterman and Leno on the same night. "How cold is it?" Leno riddled. "It's so cold, Reverend Falwell was seen hugging a Teletubbie." Rice agrees. "In my experience, I've never seen the media embrace such a story besides Dan Quayle and Murphy Brown." Although Seomin says Tinky Winky lacks gender, let alone a sexual orientation, GLAAD used the media attention generated by the Falwell story to open up a bigger dialogue: how the media shapes the way people look at the world. GLAAD emphasized this angle in interviews that aired on many of the same vehicles that featured itsy bitsy's responses, including Good Morning America, CBS This Morning, Nightly News with Tom Brokaw and Show Biz Tonight." Publicity does play tag, doesn't it? Those interviews might be responsible for, in turn, generating more press for GLAAD. The March issue of the National Liberty Journal blasts American Airlines for co-sponsoring an award ceremony hosted by GLAAD, which nominated a play Falwell's group finds objectionable. How the Charge Affected Sales Although itsy bitsy won't release sales figures, there's some indication that gays drove sales of Tinky Winky products following the announcement. "The gay community made [Tinky-Winky] an icon," says Seomin, who says a card shop in his largely gay West Hollywood neighborhood had an entire Tinky Winky section that included "every magnet, every key chain." The manager told him they can't keep them in stock. "Everything Tinky Winky was hot, hot, hot* but the dolls that come with the bag were even hotter." Tinky Winkys were selling like mad to gays, agrees Barry Sosnick, retail analyst at JW Genesis Securities Inc. and watcher of Handleman Company, which owns 75% of itsy bitsy. Sosnick estimates itsy bitsy's 1998 net profits at $4 million to $10 million. (Kenn Viselman, Steve Rice, itsy bitsy 212/989-3660 or 310/860-0505; Scott Seomin, Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, 323/658-6775; Barry Sosnick, JW Genesis Securities Inc., 212/583-1588.)

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