But recently, after a surprisingly robust night of sleep, I found myself with enough brain power to notice Cookie Monster on my son’s Pampers size 3 diaper during a morning change. There he was, pint-sized and blue, standing in a field next to a butterfly flitting here and there.
Cookie Monster was happily — happily — eating a bright orange carrot with a big bushy shoot of green off the end. The carrot was so cartoonish that even Super Mario would turn it down, seeking something that more resembles the real thing.
The questions began to bounce through my confused mind. Why on earth is Cookie Monster eating a carrot? He’s Cookie Monster — that’s what he is. He doesn’t even have a name, like Bert or Ernie, or a distinctive moniker like Oscar the Grouch.
He is only Cookie Monster. His love of cookies is his defining trait. Cookies are his essence, his raison d’etre.
So why is he eating a carrot? It turns out I’m about a decade late to this party.
“We’ve been putting healthy foods in Cookie Monster’s hands and in his mouth for a long time now,” said Scott Chambers, who oversees domestic licensing and media for Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit behind Sesame Street.
While Sesame Street characters have been on diapers for some time, Chambers said that Sesame Workshop about 10 years ago began working on a curriculum for healthy eating habits, prompted by an increase in childhood obesity. A Cornell University study showed that placing Elmo stickers on broccoli made it more appealing to kids, and so in 2005 cookies became “a sometimes food” for the fuzzy cookie eating machine.
Backed by additional research, efforts to encourage healthy eating in children have expanded in recent years, Chambers said, including a collaboration with First Lady Michelle Obama.
When it comes to diapers and other products, Sesame Workshop has a style guide for how their characters can be portrayed, Chambers said, which is informed by both curriculum goals like healthy habits or numeracy as well as popular art and design styles like Japanese anime.
As for how this smiley, vegetable-friendly character got on to the diaper itself, Sarah Wolfe of Pampers tells me that Cookie Monster and his friends are just one aspect of a diaper’s design. Pampers looks at trends in baby clothing and accessories to inform their designs, and then combines those fashion elements with characters from Sesame Street and elsewhere, Wolfe said.
“We like to think of a diaper as baby’s first piece of clothing,” said Wolfe, who is graphics design manager for Pampers. “If you’re thinking about it, what better to inspire the graphics than real-life baby clothing and fashion trends?”
The company builds off of Sesame Workshop’s guide while also using design cues to help beleaguered parents figure out how to put the darn thing on at 3 a.m. With an eye toward front-back differentiation (which is my new favorite piece of jargon), Pampers diapers tend to have a heart and fewer characters on the front and a brand tag and more characters on the back, she said.
The characters also tend to be “baby-fied,” Wolfe said, which is something that Pampers worked with Sesame Street to have.
“If you’re putting something on a baby, it’s a little more fun to have it be represented in a smaller size as well. We could have the more adult Sesame characters on there, but when you have something that’s a little bit rounder and fluffier, it just makes it a little bit softer and more baby friendly,” Wolfe said, adding that the characters start to appear a little older as the diaper size gets larger.
All of this is a stark reminder of how absent I once was from the world of babies and how much education I’ve had to do since our son arrived. There are new Sesame Street characters to learn (is the pink one with the wings Abby or Zoe?), decisions to make on which bottles are best and preferences to be formed on whether onesies with snaps or zippers are better.
By the way, snaps are clearly better, and I will Lincoln-Douglas somebody to pieces if they want to say zippers are better.
I’m making progress, but I’ll probably always be playing catch-up. Just as I learned how and why Cookie Monster is eating carrots, Wolfe said the next size up in our diapers has the Big Blue One eating cookies once again.
“You always have to eat the healthy things before the sweets and treats,” Wolfe said.
Bobby McMahon is a new father and writer living near Washington D.C. He tweets @BobFrankPat
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