Illustration: Natalie Moreno
You know what they say, you either die a hero or live long enough to see the whole world trauma dump on Elmo.
It started innocently enough. Elmo – the fuzzy red monster from Sesame Street, who is near-universally beloved despite his irritating habit of speaking in the third person – logged onto X last Monday and asked a seemingly simple question. “Elmo is just checking in!” said the post: “How is everybody doing?”
Hundreds of thousands of quote tweets later, it was clear the answer was: Not Well. The replies ranged from “Elmo, I just got laid off” to “Elmo, I’m gonna be real with you. I don’t think I can keep living like this, I feel like Oscar the Grouch in a world full of Elmos”. It kicked off a predictable conversation about mental health. But rather than pondering why everyone is so down in the dumps (because, well, duh), the whole debacle prompted me to consider another pressing question: What’s the deal with puppets?
Look around you. Puppets are everywhere. Elmo is Twitter’s amateur therapist, and Mona from Nanalan is TikTok’s “wonderful girl”. But social media is just the thin edge of the wedge too: The real puppet action is going down in advertising. London North Eastern Railway and East Midlands Railway have both introduced puppets as their brand characters, Field Day are teasing this year’s festival with a line-up of googly-eyed sock puppets, and Marmite put out a strangely suggestive ad featuring puppets spreading the sticky paste on their toast to techno.
Personally, I’ve always found puppets to have a creepy, uncanny quality to them – sock puppets especially. I just can’t get past the thought of the human hand stuffed up their rear end. But it seems the “hate it” camp is on the losing side right now. People love and trust puppets – enough to share their woes with them, or be tempted into purchasing over-priced train tickets. But what’s behind the sudden puppet cultural dominance? Is it a sign that we’re living through a grand Victorian revival, with puppets having a triumphant comeback along with child poverty and polio? Or have we just stopped trusting people?
The East Midlands Railway (EMR) advert was the brainchild of London creative agency Atomic. “With Miles [the puppet’s name], our aim was to create a memorable, relatable, and likeable character,” Atomic London’s strategy and creative team tells VICE. “He was carefully crafted to act as a shortcut to meaning for the EMR brand… His head, shaped like the letter M, reflects EMR’s logo, while his body is constructed from the same purple fabric used in EMR’s train seats.”
In other words, Miles is a nifty bit of shorthand; after all, not many human actors look like train seats. But I’m most interested in the idea of puppet characters being relatable. Neema Shah, head of consumer communications and marketing at Freeview, has similarly said that “relatable, humorous and organic” were the three most important keywords to make their 2021 ad campaign – which featured giant alien puppets – a success.
The question is: Why would people relate more to fabric creatures than, you know, other human beings? For Atomic’s team, it all comes down to the need for broad appeal. “Puppets possess a unique ability to transcend reality while still connecting with audiences,” they say. “Miles allows audiences to playfully see themselves in something completely removed from their daily lives.” Basically, puppets allow all viewers to mainline on empathy, without having to deal with pesky issues like race, gender, class or sexual orientation. Puppet characters can be everything to everyone.
This would seem to suggest that the rise of puppets is connected to the perpetual culture wars and our increasingly polarised public sphere. “It takes culture and race out of it, and just focuses on personality,” agrees Jennifer Kidd, director of Scale Model Studios, which specialises in stop motion animation and has recently produced puppet ads for Capri Sun, Dice and Deliveroo. “It’s just like: Are you a happy or sad character? And that’s it,” she says. “This character is selling a chocolate bar. The end. Do you like it or not? Do you like dark chocolate or not? That’s it. It just simplifies things.”
It’s not just human actors that puppets are edging out, it’s CGI, too. “It doesn’t matter how good CGI gets, puppets feel more alive because they are there,” says Joe Corcoran, executive creative director at Anomaly, who created Freeview’s aliens campaign. Kidd adds that they bring a sense of innocence: “I’ve always thought that [with] puppets in general, you can get away with murder,” she says. “You accept them, flaws and all, because they’re cute.” Their cuteness lures you in, and also gives them a certain licence. “You can say things that are quite serious using a puppet and people will absorb it more,” she says. “It’s almost like it unconsciously brings you back to your teddy bears that you grew up with.” Perhaps this is why people felt comfortable sharing their trauma with Elmo.
“When it comes to puppets, there’s a complete lack of judgement,” Kidd says. “It’s bringing you back to a childlike stage where there is something that you can talk to that understands you completely, has your back, is completely there for you, because it’s your teddy,” she continues. “They’re an extension of you, they understand you immediately… This is why they use soft puppets when talking to kids in psychology. A teddy never judges, ever. People keep their teddies right up until the age of 70,” she notes, “for a reason they probably don’t even realise, and that is the link to innocence.”
All this being said, there’s a big practical reason for using puppetry, too: It saves money. “We’ve had a dip in funding in advertising in the few years,” Kidd says. “It’s really come down.” This has forced agencies to think outside the box. She notes that the rise in the lo-fi aesthetic in advertising is not just because of taste, it’s because of budget. Indeed, Corcoran admits that one of the reasons the alien puppets won out over CGI, was because “once we made them, we had the opportunity to go back and shoot them again at a lower cost”.
Necessity is the mother of invention, after all. But there is a harder edge to all this talk of costs and budgets, which brings us back to the idea of people using puppets to seek safety. As Elmo found out the hard way, a lot of us aren’t doing so good right now. “Life has just gotten harder lately,” Kidd says, “and our ability to cope with that change does not necessarily match the pace. So finding comfort in anything is a major go-to, and it’s becoming more prevalent.”
Ultimately, it seems Big Puppet has emerged from a perfect storm. Thanks to the current political and economic climate, people are infantilised and stressed out. In an attempt to self-soothe, we’re turning to simple, childish comforts, and infantilising ourselves further. But maybe this isn’t all such a bad thing – indeed, maybe it’s a way for people to keep their spirits up. “I think we love puppets because they represent imagination,” Corcoran says. “A world of make-believe. It only takes a pair of well-placed eyes on something to bring it to life,” he adds. “There was a talking loaf of French bread on The Muppet Show, and it still makes me laugh to this day.”