The cuddly $28 doll, designed for kids under 5, wiggled and giggled when squeezed.
Targeted to parents in TV spots created by D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles, New York, initial sales were good but not earth-shattering.
Then Tyco publicists tried a different maneuver. A Tickle Me Elmo doll was given to daytime TV show host Rosie O'Donnell, who was so charmed by it she mentioned it several times on the air in October.
Next NBC-TV's "Today" show and syndicated TV's "Regis & Kathie Lee" featured it during programs, and suddenly the doll began to disappear from toy store shelves.
A full-blown stampede was under way by the day after Thanksgiving, when TV news reports dubbed Tickle Me Elmo the first hit toy of the holiday season.
"Everything exploded over-night, and since we hadn't anticipated that kind of demand we had trouble keeping up with supplies," says Neil Friedman, president of Tyco Preschool.
The company stepped up manufacturing and pulled advertising, but publicity about the shortages continued to drive demand to the point where parents shoved one another to get the last dolls whenever new shipments arrived at stores.
Some stockpiled the dolls, reselling them at inflated prices to desperate parents trying to score the hard-to-find item before Christmas.
"Publicity about shortages fanned the flames, but the product itself was truly compelling, and that's why it got so much attention on the talk shows," Mr. Friedman says.
Mania for Tickle Me Elmo faded fast after Christmas, suggesting the toy was primarily a one-season hit-and parents clamored louder for it than kids.