Baby giraffe Kenai stands next to his mother Dioni on August 31, 2016 at the zoo in La Fleche, France. Fans of April the Giraffe are awaiting a similar tableau. Photo by Jean-Francois Monier—AFP/Getty Images
Around the time April the Giraffe passed the 15-month mark of her pregnancy, Toys "R" Us decided it had to act.
For the uninitiated, April the Giraffe became a viral sensation this winter after the Animal Adventure Park, a zoo in upstate New York, turned on a live stream in her stall. To the world, it was an opportunity to watch the exotic pregnant animal give birth in real time—an event the zoo has been predicting since February would happen imminently, and as of Friday evening was still promising could happen any minute.
To Toys "R" Us, it was something like the Internet version of the Super Bowl.
As weeks have passed and April still has yet to give birth, the number of people watching Animal Adventure Park's "Giraffe Cam" on YouTube has steadily climbed, with as many as 250,000 people tuning in at any given time, even in the middle of the night. But since late March, as viewers became increasingly anxious, a third giraffe suddenly appeared on screen with April and her baby's father, Oliver—only it wasn't the one people were expecting. It was Geoffrey the Giraffe, Toys "R" Us's smiling mascot, peeking out from the store's logo at the bottom of the live feed.
After the zoo said April had reached the full-term of her pregnancy—giraffes have an average gestation period of 15 months—Toys "R" Us seized on a unique opportunity to sponsor an event with no known kickoff time or end date. April the Giraffe has thus provided the retailer with a continuous marketing campaign that has lasted longer than anyone expected, and reached a massive captive audience that rivals television's most popular showings.
"We quickly became mesmerized (some might even say obsessed!) by #Aprilthegiraffe and were thrilled to join the millions of people from around the world who had been watching the live video feed from the Animal Adventure Park," Amy von Walter, a spokesperson for Toys "R" Us, tells Fortune in an email. "Our team reached out to the Zoo and we were able to agree on a sponsorship immediately."
Toys "R" Us, which has been owned by private equity firms including KKR since their 2005 buyout, won't say how much it is spending for the Giraffe Cam sponsorship rights. But so far, since the toy store chain began the campaign just about two weeks ago, 14.8 million viewers have watched April the Giraffe's live stream through the Toys "R" Us logo. That doesn't include the other videos and records of previous live streams with Toys "R" Us branding on the zoo's YouTube channel, which brings the total audience for its giraffe videos to about 28 million—and counting.
That's 2 million more people than tuned in to watch the Grammy's in February, when pop superstar Beyoncé performed live. It's also a much bigger audience than the 16.8 million viewers who watched the NCAA Final Four games last month in college basketball's March Madness tournament. And it's nearly as many as the 33 million who viewed the Oscars this year.
The toy store chain has made the most of its Giraffe Cam deal, dispatching several employees up to the zoo, located outside of Binghamton, N.Y., to record exclusive videos, including interviews with April's veterinarian. The company believes the campaign is paying off by driving customers into the stores; it even has its own live feed of April, accompanied by a curated online shop of toy giraffes and stuffed animals. Some customers have even complained on social media that there were no more plush giraffes available at their local Toys "R" Us.
In fact, April the Giraffe viewers have taken so much notice of the Toys "R" Us sponsorship that the longer they wait for the baby giraffe (called a calf) to arrive, the more they float conspiracy theories on social media, with some suggesting that the whole thing is a hoax, or elaborate marketing stunt. (The zoo has repeatedly assured its growing number of fans that April is definitely pregnant, that it's normal and okay for her to continue gestating longer than the average giraffe, and that she will give birth to the calf when she is ready.)
Animal Adventure Park has pledged to donate some of the money it raises from the April the Giraffe sponsorship, along with related merchandise it sells, to further giraffe conservation efforts around the world. As for how much longer Toys "R" Us' Geoffrey the Giraffe will be hanging out with April, that remains to be determined.
Originally published by Fortune Magazine