Shaq-a-Claus Returns to Toys for Tots Campaign

Although he has retired from professional basketball, Shaquille O’Neal is continuing in his role as “Shaq-a-Claus” for the Toys “R” Us annual holiday campaign for the Marine Toys for Tots Foundation.
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The new Toys for Tots campaign, featuring Shaquille O’Neal.
Last week the retailer announced details of its collaboration with O’Neal on the campaign, the third time they have worked together. This year’s efforts include a more robust use of social media, and new in-store point-of-purchase materials — like display posters — featuring the player dressed as “Shaq-a-Claus,” towering over a pyramid of children, holding wrapped gifts, to create a “Shaq-mas tree.”

For several years, O’Neal personally donated toys to needy children during the holiday season; Toys “R” Us sought him out to participate in its own campaign for the Marine Toys for Tots Foundation in 2009. The retailer has been collecting donations — of both money and new toys — for the foundation, which was established in 1947, since 2004.

According to Lt. Gen. Pete Osman, chief executive of the Marine Toys for Tots Foundation, the poverty rate in the United States climbed to 15.1 percent in 2010, with more than 16 million children under the age of 18 living in poverty; this is the highest rate of poverty since 1993. The Carsey Institute, an organization at the University of New Hampshire that conducts policy research on vulnerable children, youth and families, last month estimated that nearly one in four children under the age of 6 lives in poverty in the United States today.

General Osman said the Marine Toys for Tots Foundation’s fund-raising goal this year was $210 million; its goal was the same last year, although it exceeded this amount by $30 million.

Toys “R” Us is collecting toys through Dec. 4 and donations through Christmas Eve for the foundation; customers can donate money either through a special microsite on the retailer’s Web site, or at the cash register when making purchases at a Toys “R” Us or Babies “R” Us store. Customers also may donate new, unwrapped toys at these stores; toys will be distributed to needy children by the foundation during the holiday season.

From 2004 through last year, Toys “R” Us donated close to $24 million in cash and more than three million toys to the foundation, both through its own gifts and those of its customers. For this year’s campaign, as of Monday morning, it had raised $167,056, plus a $250,000 grant from the Toys “R” Us Children’s Fund.

To promote the foundation’s efforts, Toys “R” Us this year has created new content for its Toys for Tots microsite, including a video message from O’Neal and an updated list of different types of toys the foundation recommends as appropriate for different age groups of children; the foundation distributes toys to children ranging in age from infants to early teenagers.

Social media also are being used to promote the Toys “R” Us campaign: The retailer is employing its Toys “R” Us and Babies “R” Us Facebook pages to engage the online community, through Shaq-a-Claus content and photos from the 2011 campaign’s photo shoot. O’Neal is also using Twitter, his own blog and Facebook page to drive awareness of the campaign.

In addition, the retailer has created new supporting material for its stores, including a poster with O’Neal, holding a star and dressed as Shaq-a-Claus, atop a Christmas tree of children, and a button for salespeople, featuring O’Neal as Shaq-a-Claus, who urges customers to “donate today.”

Promoting the Toys for Tots campaign “is one of the major pillars of our overall holiday campaign. It’s integrated into all we do, from circulars, e-mails, our Web site, social media” to banner advertising, on the Toys “R” Us Web site and elsewhere, said Greg Ahearn, the company’s chief marketing officer. The retailer also will promote the campaign through “The Great Big Christmas Book,” a holiday gift book it releases annually, in both print and digital versions; the 2011 edition will be released shortly.

Mr. Ahearn, who declined to reveal the Toys “R” Us marketing budget for the Toys for Tots campaign, said O’Neal was “not only one of the world’s greatest basketball players, he’s a big kid at heart and continues to be an advocate for children.”

In a news release announcing the 2011 Toys “R” Us initiative, O’Neal, now an analyst for TNT, said he was “stepping into the role of my favorite alter ego, Shaq-a-Claus. It’s my personal mission to make sure no kid goes without a toy to open on Christmas. …When I was young, I received a very special, unexpected gift, a Dr. J-signed basketball. To this day, I remember the excitement I felt, and I’d love for the millions of kids in need across the country to experience that same joy. That’s why I’ll be encouraging people every way I can to join me in giving back.”

“We love kids, that’s what we’re about. There’s no better connection than Toys “R” Us and Toys for Tots to bring that to life,” said Mr. Ahearn.

Toys “R” Us and Babies “R” Us are two of the Marine Toys for Tots Foundation’s four “five-star” corporate partners; each has pledged at least $1 million in cash or $2 million in toys to the 2011 campaign. The other two top-ranked partners are Scholastic, the children’s book publisher, and Lego, the toy company.

General Osman also said he was hopeful Michelle Obama, who helped promote the campaign in 2009 and 2010, would do so again this year.