America's parents possessed by Elmo mania

It's official: the 1996 Christmas Craze Award in the kiddies' toy category (United States and Canada) is awarded to a stuffed toy in deep crimson with bug eyes and bright nose recognisable to fans of Sesame Street as Elmo. Only this guy likes to have his tummy rubbed and goes by"Tickle Me Elmo".

This furry stroke of marketing brilliance has amply measured up to the award's usual high standards.

With eight days until Christmas, it is absolutely unavailable and the mere mention of it triggers general hysteria. Past winners have included Cabbage Patch Dolls, Transformers and Power Rangers.

A runner-up this year (as this frustrated correspondent and father can confirm) is the Talking Woody doll made popular by the film Toy Story. Buzz Lightyear dolls (winner, United Kingdom), by contrast, are an easy find here.

Tickle Me Elmo's performance is this: tickle it once and it giggles, tickle a second time and you hear: "Oh no, that tickles". Indulge your sadistic impulses for a third tickle and the doll vibrates and squeals.

The toy has captured the requisite rush of media attention. Whose pen- portrait graced the front page of the Wall Street Journal's Marketplace section yesterday? Tickle Me Elmo's. It is a serious commodity, after all, that is priced at $29 (pounds 18) but can be sold at over a grand.

A fresh story of Elmo-mania lands almost daily. At the weekend, an assistant in a Wal-Mart superstore in Canada ended up in hospital after being trampled at 3 o'clock in the morning by some 300 frenzied parents attracted by a middle-of-the-night special Elmo sale.

Last week, the news wires bombarded us with the Florida grandmother who paid $3,500 for a single Tickle Me Elmo in a live auction held by her local radio station. The woman had no child in mind that might want the doll, but, like all Americans by now, she knew she simply had to have one. In New York, mothers have been seen chasing toy lorries in case fresh Elmo supplies are concealed within. In Britain, Selfridges had 40 but one American bought them immediately.

The toy's maker, Tyco, is, shall we say, tickled. It originally planned production of about 300,000 dolls but has now upped that to one million.

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