Did Sesame Street sell its soul on Superbowl Sunday?

By February 9, 2021 March 16th, 2021 No Comments

Sesame Street is getting a lot of attention for a commercial that aired on Sunday during the Superbowl in the United States and a lot of it isn’t positive. The ad, for third party delivery service DoorDash, features several Sesame characters alongside Hamilton star Daveed Diggs singing and rapping a modified version of People In Your Neighbourhood that extols all of the things you can have delivered “in your neighbourghood” by DoorDash. The commercial was directed by acclaimed French filmmaker Michael Gondry.

Delivery services like DoorDash have exploded during the pandemic, as has a creeping public awareness that these apps are very problematic. Funded by billions in venture capital, most exploit small restaurants with predatory pricing, and use the independent contractor status of their “gig workers” to skirt labour laws and avoid paying the taxes. In California, rather than pay drivers a little more or provide proper healthcare, the industry spent two hundred million dollars campaigning to be exempt from basic labour standards. Here in Canada, one company – Foodora – famously abandoned the entire country after its drivers won the right to unionize here.

In short, the industry doesn’t exactly seem to act in accordance with Sesame Street’s values. That’s why more than a few people were more than a little surprised by the partnership:

Not that the commercial wasn’t popular. Many people seemed to be genuinely charmed by the nostalgia of it:

It was even an educational opportunity for some families…

Honestly, a development like this shouldn’t really surprise any of us at this point. Prior to to Sesame Street’s migration from free public television to paid premium cable a few years ago (PBS still airs shows eighteen months after they debut exclusively on HBO), Sesame Workshop nearly went broke. The organization’s corporate leaders have managed to engineer an impressive financial turnaround thanks to the HBO deal, efforts to aggressively develop new shows, expand in to new markets like China and even act as a venture capital fund. While it increasingly feels like Sesame Street is compromising some of its original values, the truth is that tension between the show’s (expensive) educational mandate and means that are used to pay for it is not a new phenomenon.

This isn’t even the first time Sesame Street characters have been loaned out for corporate ads in recent years. Sesame Workshop previously partnered with Chrysler for a series of thinly disguised ads in 2017:

Sesame Street has been doing a difficult dance with consumerism for decades. Although originally funded through generous U.S. government grants and private foundations in the late sixties and early seventies, the show has long been financially dependent on mass merchandising, but it wasn’t always so. In the earliest days of Sesame Street, the idea of merchandising characters and marketing to children was looked down on as crass and was extremely controversial. Eventually, a limited number of products (mostly educationally vetted toys, records and books) were allowed in the market. What began as a trickle quickly became a flood, and today Sesame Street characters are put on seemingly on everything from expensive Carribean vacations, to vitamins, to organic waffles, to lawn ornaments, and a truly mind boggling array of toys and other consumer products. It’s hard not to miss the irony – or perhaps hypocrisy – of a beloved organization that has prided itself on teaching generations of children environmental lessons like “Keep Nature Clean” funding itself through the sale of millions of tonnes of non-recyclable plastic products that are ultimately destined to end up in landfills.

Like most people, I grew up with Sesame Street. I’ve always loved the characters, and I have nothing but respect for the writers, builders, puppeteers, and other crew who I know are sincerely committed to the show’s educational mission and to preserving its legacy. That is why seeing something like this campaign feels so sad. To a lot of families like mine that trust Sesame Street and its values for generations, this really feels like a betrayal. I’d love to believe that this DoorDash promotion was a poorly considered one-off, but I strongly suspect that this won’t be the last time we see Sesame Street selling out and shilling for questionable corporate partners.

How terribly, terribly sad.