Why United Airlines is taking out the trash with Oscar the Grouch

Sesame Workshop's Jennifer Ahearn breaks down why one of America's biggest airlines turned to Sesame Street's iconic kids character to communicate the complex topic of sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) to consumers of all ages.
April 28, 2023

By Katie Bailey and Andrea Hernandez

Like peanut butter and banana sandwiches, United Airlines and Oscar the Grouch might seem like an unlikely combo at first. One is America’s fourth-largest air carrier with a primarily adult customer base, and the other is a beloved children’s TV character who lives in a garbage can.

But Oscar’s love of trash is exactly what United is hoping can help communicate the complex topic of sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) to consumers of all ages. United is actively backing SAF—which is made from cooking oil and agricultural waste—in a bid to someday adopt sustainable fuels in its operations. (The company recently invested in NEXT Renewable Fuels, which is looking to build a biofuel refinery in Oregon, with production starting in 2026.)

Typical explainer videos showing how banana peels transform into engine fuel aren’t likely to be very engaging to most people, but watching Oscar take on a new role as United’s “Chief Trash Officer” has a totally different value proposition.

And that’s at the heart of a major new media campaign from United and its ad agency, 72andSunny. In more than 30 pieces of original content across video, digital, social and outdoor media, Oscar will be onboarded into his new position. He’ll meet airline employees in real-life United workplace situations, and they’ll explain how SAF turns trash into treasure (among other topics) in everyday, all-ages language.

When United and 72andSunny approached Sesame Workshop with the idea, it was an undeniably “perfect fit,” says Jennifer Ahearn, VP of strategic partnerships. But Sesame always has to weigh corporate requests to use its iconic IPs against the nonprofit company’s core mission—to better the lives of kids through quality content. So putting together a partnership of this size and nature can be a complex undertaking.

“We are very selective about these types of partnerships. We evaluate the entirety of what a partnership can look like and [ensure] that our partners support our mission,” explains Ahearn. “We worked very closely hand-in-hand with [United]. We review every piece of content to ensure that it’s up to our brand standards, and that Oscar and his love of trash are portrayed accurately.”

Sesame’s characters have multigenerational appeal, she notes. “So many adults, grandparents and parents grew up on Sesame Street… and that’s usually why brands like United want to work with us. So when they wanted to feature Oscar in this campaign because of his love for trash, we said, ‘That sounds really interesting. But of course, it’s really important for you to support our mission.'”

In this case, United made a donation to the Welcome Sesame initiative, which provides content and support to children and families in crisis zones. The airline also incorporated Sesame Workshop into its Miles on a Mission program, which allows travelers to donate their United loyalty points to various causes. (The program funneled 13 million miles to 40 nonprofit partners last year.)

Can Oscar the Grouch turn the tide on airline-fueled carbon emissions, spurring consumer demand for more sustainable options? That’s a tall order for a short-canned monster. But if he can charm people into paying attention—and inspire them to think bigger about trash, consumption and sustainability—that’s a win for the whole world.

This story originally appeared in Kidscreen‘s April/May 2023 magazine. 

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