Bloomberg News

Etch A Sketch Maker Capitalizes After Being Drawn Into Race

March 22, 2012

Rick Santorum, right, hands an Etch A Sketch to a staff member on March 22, 2012, in San Antonio. Photographer: Eric Gay/AP Photo

Rick Santorum, right, hands an Etch A Sketch to a staff member on March 22, 2012, in San Antonio. Photographer: Eric Gay/AP Photo

Mitt Romney didn’t make Etch A Sketch a playtime fixture. Generations of nimble-fingered budding artists did that.

His campaign did manage to make the toy that Ohio Art Co. (OART) released in 1960 a central political metaphor when a spokesman compared the Republican presidential candidate’s views to the erasable drawing pad.

The mention during a CNN interview -- and ensuing storm of rivals’ mockery and social-media reiteration -- prompted a flood of attention. In its 52 years, nothing spread the name Etch A Sketch so fast and wide, said Martin Killgallon, senior vice president for marketing and product development.

“If you went out and tried to buy this kind of media coverage, it would be impossible,” Killgallon, 36, said in a telephone interview. “I don’t know how to measure it.”

Nicole Gresh, spokeswoman for the Bryan, Ohio-based toymaker founded in 1908, said she hadn’t had so many calls since June. That’s when Lyons, Colorado, held a Sketch-A-Palooza to set a Guinness Book of Records mark for simultaneous sketching.

The red, plastic tablet, a mainstay of U.S. playrooms and Ohio Art’s best-selling product through last year, allows children to use knobs to control a line’s horizontal and vertical progress. Shake the gizmo and the picture disappears, leaving a clean slate for a new creation.

Franco-American Fun

The toy was invented by Andre Cassagnes in the late 1950s. The French electrician’s original version, called the Telecran, used a joystick, glass and aluminum powder. Ohio Art then bought the rights. It sells the toy for $17.99.

Etch A Sketch’s star turn began yesterday, when Romney aide Eric Fehrnstrom was asked on CNN whether he was concerned that the candidate was being forced by Republican opponents to take extreme positions during the primary that might alienate moderates in a race against President Barack Obama.

“You hit a reset button for the fall campaign,” Fehrnstrom said. “Everything changes. It’s almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up, and we start all over again.”

The statement resounded in the political world -- and beyond. Tim George, a Columbus, Ohio, artist whose medium is the Etch A Sketch, said he has drawn all 44 U.S. presidents.

Get Scribbling

“I haven’t drawn any of the Republican candidates yet because I was kind of waiting until they narrow it down to one,” George, 60, said in a telephone interview. “It looks like I’ll be drawing Romney, though, at some point. In fact, I wish I had it done now.”

At the FAO Schwarz toy store in midtown Manhattan -- which displays a prototype Etch A Sketch dating from 1959 -- shopper and father Cal Elcan said the plaything is “timeless.”

“We’ve all played with an Etch A Sketch before -- every one of us,” said the tourist from Nashville, Tennessee.

Alexis Elcan, 9, said she finds twiddling the knobs more challenging than a newfangled computer drawing game.

“They’re weird,” she said. “You have to be really good at them.”

Ohio Art, which manufactures the plaything in China, employs about 100 people at its Toy Street facility in Bryan (12939MF), including sales and design staffs, Killgallon said. The town of about 11,500, dominated by the county courthouse’s clock tower, is a capital of childhood delights: It is also home of Spangler Candy Co., maker of Dum Dums lollipops.

Divine Plug

Ohio Art competes in a field dominated by Mattel Inc. (MAT) and Hasbro Inc. (HAS), the world’s largest toymakers, with combined sales of more than $10 billion. They spend millions on advertising and marketing, and Hasbro even owns part of a cable television station to help market its toys.

“It’s virtually impossible to get attention,” said Michael Greenberg, chief executive of Chester, New Jersey-based PlayWow International, a small manufacturer that tries to garner publicity by donating its inflatable toys. “Something like this is a gift from God.”

Fehrnstrom’s free publicity might be worth tens of millions to Ohio Art, according to Jordan Zimmerman, founder of an eponymous advertising firm whose clients include Papa John’s International Inc. (PZZA) and Office Depot Inc. (ODP)

“It will help resurrect the brand and drive sales,” said Zimmerman, who’s based in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. “If they are smart, they will parlay this.”

Surprise Gift

This gift of free advertising comes after sales in the arts-and-crafts category, which includes Etch a Sketch, declined 1 percent to $2.7 billion last year, according to NPD Group. Total revenue in the U.S. toy industry fell 2 percent to $21.2 billion, the researcher said.

Shares of Ohio Arts, which is thinly traded, more than doubled to $9.65 after three transactions totaling 800 shares at the close in New York’s over-the-counter market.

It’s too early tell whether sales will increase, Ohio Art said.

“It’s a pop culture icon and it’s nice to be part of the discussion,” Killgallon said. “One thing we’d like to do with all this publicity is to try to find a way to turn it into a positive and look at some sort of get-out-the-vote campaign.”

Killgallon said he’s been asked whether Etch A Sketch leans toward Democrats or Republicans.

“Etch A Sketch has right- and left-hand knobs,” he said. “We speak to both parties. And together we can draw circles.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Chris Christoff in Bryan at cchristoff@bloomberg.net; Matt Townsend in New York at mtownsend9@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Robin Ajello at rajello@bloomberg.net


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