The worst song in the world, in my mind, is without a doubt the Build-A-Bear cover of Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York.”
I know this because I worked at a Build-A-Bear one summer in college, and my primary memory of that time is the misery I felt every time I heard the chorus “If a bear can make it there, a bear can make it anywhere.”
I only say this to prove my (admittedly roughly decade-old) credentials to jump into the recent Build-A-Bear discourse. (I tried to find evidence of the cursed “New York, New York” cover on the internet but failed. Instead, I found this Spotify playlist of more updated Workshop Jams, which caused me to feel genuine pangs of jealousy for the employees who get to instead hear “Kids in ABEARica,” an objectively more tolerable song.)
For anyone who missed out, it boiled down to a particularly funny viral tweet that alerted the public to the fact that “Build-A-Bear just launched an ‘After Dark’ series of horny teddy bears.”
And indeed, it’s hard to interpret the photo accompanying the headline as chaste. A lion, in a silk crimson robe, on a faux fur carpet, in front of a fire, with roses and flutes of champagne? Build-A-Bear obviously knew what it was doing here. As one co-worker put it in our Slack conversation, “a lion is canonically horny.”
It may be that we were all starved for a little bawdiness after the Green M&M rebrand (let her wear white go-go boots!), but this news sparked a real fascination on the internet and among my colleagues. “This is the endpoint of American culture, simply making some cartoons sexy and others less sexy and then fighting about it, forever and ever,” one colleague said.
Unfortunately, some slight scrolling through the online inventory shows that the horny lion wearing a Hugh Hefner robe was pure marketing—there is nothing in Build-A-Bear’s adult line that matches the energy of that particular photo shoot. The closest I could find to any libidinous stuffed animals for sale were this devil bear and this very sweet guy offering you roses, and I only say that because he’s wearing a beret. I couldn’t even find the lion styled in his Hefner-esque outfit—I had to search the separate sleepwear category on the Build-A-Bear website to find the silk robe.
So what’s “adult” about this line, really?
Alcohol, mostly. Some of these animals are carrying plush champagne bottles or, in one frankly charming case, a can of hard seltzer. There are a bunch of wine-mom-style T-shirts for the stuffed animals, including one that says “rosé over roses” and “it’s wine o’clock somewhere.” Other shirts reference the existence of romantic relationships (“don’t text your ex”) and singlehood (“not today, cupid,”) as well as gay pride. (To be charitable to Build-A-Bear here, I think that the gay pride bears are in the adult section because they have been lumped in with other specialty gift items, such as sports team bears, military bears, and profession-specific bears, and not because queer bears aren’t considered family-friendly.)
In short, the whole adult line is—apologies for cribbing yet another colleague’s line here—“less adult fantasy and more adult reality.”
I reached out to Build-A-Bear hoping the company might say something—anything—about the target demographic for an adult stuffed bear. But the company declined to talk to me on record about horniness.
Instead, a spokesperson sent along this statement: “As Build-A-Bear celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, it has become a multi-generational brand and company. Many adults went to Build-A-Bear as children and still have a strong affinity for the brand today. In fact, a meaningful and growing portion of Build-A-Bear’s furry friends are purchased by and for adults. Accordingly, a selection of products have been designed to appeal to this expanded market.”
The statement also noted that the “After Dark” marketing campaign has run annually for Valentine’s Day for “a number of years,” though the spokesperson declined to tell me how many years numbered “a number.”
Personally, I never once saw adults shopping for themselves when I worked at Build-A-Bear.
Granted, this was in a beach town in Alabama. It may be that, as someone working at a family vacation destination, I wasn’t getting the typical Build-A-Bear demographic. But I’m telling you, the store culture was aggressively nonadult. There were bear puns everywhere. The heart ceremony you perform before stuffing the bear, in which you do things like wave the bear’s cushioned heart over the child’s head to make the bear smart like him, wasn’t geared for the over-10 set.
Yes, there were One Direction song-boxes you could stuff inside your bear, but I would say it was mostly prepubescent kids going for those. (A side note: Sometimes, punk tweens would smash all of the “What Makes You Beautiful” sound inserts at the same time, creating a hellish chorus that would fill the store and just have to play out. I now can appreciate the times kids waited until we thought it was all over to set them all off again. It’s good comedy.) Perhaps one or two unaccompanied adults braved the noise and colors and maniacally chipper employees and bear-speak. But having worked there, I certainly can’t imagine having felt relaxed enough to peruse the store’s offerings for myself.
I suppose that’s the beauty of online shopping. Many items in the adult-oriented Build-A-Bear shop are only for sale in the online store, which tries to appeal to adults looking for gifts, adults who are into collector items, and adults who are parts of specific fandoms (as in officially licensed Bowser, Ross, and Deadpool bears).
OK, but did I mention that in the advertising campaign for “Build-A-Bear After Dark,” the words were spelled out in red-light-district-evoking neon letters? That the ad copy the company used on Facebook starts with “wink, wink” and ends with a promise that the “After Dark” bears “are sure to get you hugged”? That on the Instagram ad, Build-A-Bear suggested that parents, hint hint, get their kids to bed? Where are the real after-dark bears we were promised?!
I called up someone who knows the industry to try to make sense of it all. (Admittedly, here I am, writing a whole blog post about this company, providing free advertising, so touché, Build-A-Bear.)
Juli Lennett is a toy industry adviser who works for the NPD Group, a market research company. Lennett said she couldn’t speak to Build-A-Bear specifically, as it’s not one of the companies that NPD monitors, but she did tell me that the company wasn’t wrong to tout the adult market for stuffed animals—even if they weren’t adult in the way they were advertised.
“Traditional plush,” as the industry people call it, has soared during the pandemic, she said. According to NPD, people ages 12 and older accounted for 63 percent of the toy industry’s growth, and all toy sales in the U.S. were up an eye-popping 16 percent in the first year of the pandemic—and another 13 percent in 2021. This is partially due to parents working and schooling from home, unable to take their kids on vacations, and sitting on some extra cash from stimulus checks and family tax credits.
In the stuffed animal market specifically, there was a massive surge in teens and young adults buying a brand called “Squishmallows” after the TikTok mega-influencer Charli D’Amelio posted a photo of herself surrounded by more than two dozen of them. “That tells us the adult market for toys is definitely alive,” Lennett said. “It can work.” (Adult market in the industry context means ages 12 and up.)
Of course, the adult bear campaign is a Valentine’s Day thing and really not worth overthinking. I’m sure there exist more than one or two adults who, unsure of what to purchase for a loved one, secured a bear holding a plush bottle of “CaBEARnet.”
But some chaotic part of me is holding onto hope that next year, when the company runs this campaign again, it offers more than spicy ad copy. Give us a real scandal—something to clutch our pearls about! A dominatrix hippo! A bunny in a throuple! After all, February is a cold and miserable month. It’s nice to be distracted.