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Walking up and down the aisles recently at New York's annual Toy Fair, I saw some clever new products that'll be coming soon to a store near you -- or will be available on the Internet. They range from whimsical to educational, parody to serious, inexpensive to pricey. Ironically, many of these toys celebrate American democracy, and they're made in China.
Sure, political toys aren't going to outsell Harry Potter, Barbie (see BW Online, 2/17/04, "Behind the Barbie-Ken Breakup"), Yu-Gi-Oh!, or the latest holiday kids' craze. But manufacturers are betting that a market exists for political toys, games, and specialty items aimed at both children and grown-ups.
KERRY ON DECK. The best of the bunch: A George Bush punching bag by Rocket USA. The "Battling Bush" Bop Bag comes in two versions: a 7-inch inflatable with the Prez in red, white, and blue boxing shorts ($5 suggested retail) and a 46-inch version ($14.95) with a sand-filled base and three-dimesnional, bright-red boxing gloves that squeak when you whack them. Each punching bag has a caricature of Daddy Bush (George H.W.) egging on his son with a hearty, "Go get 'em, Boy!"
Rocket USA President Michael C. Perry says he also has a John Kerry punching bag prototype ("Knockout Kerry"), but he's waiting until Kerry clinches the Democratic nomination before rushing it into production. Political junkies will want these products. The art is first-rate. Perry's company clearly knows what it's doing. And it has a track record: It sells other punching bags featuring such American icons as Bozo the Clown and Homer Simpson.
Voters who want a cocktail with their punching bag might be interested in Rocket USA's Bush coasters with famous Presidential sayings on them. One gem: "It's clearly a budget. It's got a lot of numbers in it."
BOXER BRIGADE. For Americans with a yen for more reverential Bush toys, Blue Box Toys has a scale model of the President in his famous naval aviator's outfit for $49 retail. Manufactured in Hong Kong, this 12-inch action figure features a remarkable likeness of the Commander-in-Chief and includes an authentic helmet and two extra hands -- one for the thumbs-up signal and another that's molded to allow it to grip something.
Kids and kids-at-heart who want a slightly less expensive doll have a choice of six Presidential talking action figures from Toypresidents Inc.. George W. Bush is the only one already on the market, but Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, John Kennedy, Teddy Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln are scheduled for release on Apr. 1, with a suggested retail price of $29.95. Each of the made-in-China dolls features hand-tied neckties, hand-tailored suits, period shoes, real socks, and even themed boxer shorts. (Bush's have an American flag, TR's feature a teddy bear, Clinton's are red silk.) The Bush doll also sports cowboy boots with a Presidential seal.
What makes these dolls stand out most is that they feature the recorded voices of every President but Lincoln (whose voice is reenacted by a professional impersonator). Each President utters 25 noted sayings, such as Reagan's historic, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall" and JFK's "Ich bin ein Berliner." For history buffs, each kit also comes with a bio pamphlet listing some of the President's major accomplishments in office.
LADIES IN WAITING. In the unofficial pre-order popularity poll, Reagan has taken an early lead among the Presidents soon to go on sale, says Michon Anne Combs, vice-president of Toypresidents. Combs and her partner/husband already are planning a second series of dolls. The most wanted Presidents: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Jimmy Carter. The most requested First Lady dolls: Laura Bush, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and Nancy Reagan.
Combs says she formed the company "just on a whim" after coming up with the concept for the talking dolls. She and her husband also run a refrigerant recycling business in Houston.
The best educational product of Campaign '04 is the Patriot Challenge, a new, high-quality board game that should make learning about history, politics, and public issues fun for the whole family. It's a bit pricey ($34.99 suggested retail) but worth it. It has more than 650 quiz cards covering three levels of expertise: elementary-school (age 10 and up), middle school, and high school/college. As many as six players can join in, and parents are encouraged to team up with their kids.
STUDIOUSLY NONPARTISAN. The graphics are excellent, and the Patriot Challenge uses U.S. postage stamps to illustrate many of the topics covered, from Texas independence to rock 'n' roll. (It has been licensed by the U.S. Postal Service and is available on the Post Office Web site.
The game tokens include silver-colored replicas of the Liberty Bell, the Statue of Liberty, the Lincoln Memorial, a George Washington bust, and a bald eagle. This patriotic venture is studiously nonpartisan and politically neutral, though it should provoke hours of family discussion of living history.
A couple of other political games require less skill. The Sumo U.S. Presidential Election turns the campaign into a sumo wrestling match with a beefy Bush and overstuffed Kerry on the game box. This product of Endless Games is scheduled to debut in April at $9.99. The goal is to knock the opponent out of the ring and is accomplished through a version of the old rock/paper/scissors game -- in this case it's attack, counter, and defend.
CACHE YOUR VOTES. Another new game by a Dutch company, Identity Games, likens the Presidential race to a soap-box derby. (Not surprisingly, the company makes a similar game called Soap Box Derby.) President's Race, which features stretch limos instead of soap-box cars, retails for $6.95 and is targeted at ages six and older.
For a mix of skill and luck, try Hail to the Chief from Aristoplay. Retailing for $30, it's an updated version of an old game featuring questions about Presidents and elections. The goal is to accumulate the biggest cache of electoral votes. Two to four players can participate, and it's recommended for ages eight and up.
A few companies are marketing election-related material to teachers and parents alike. Teacher Created Materials, a publisher based in Westminster, Calif., has published election guides aimed at grade-school students ($7.99 to $12.99). They teach pupils the vocabulary of American politics, the basics of the party system, and details of governance, such as the House and Senate. The company also offers a plethora of decorative material, such as flags, stickers, Uncle Sam banners, and red, white, and blue trim that could be used in a classroom or a bedroom.
For years, lobbyists have invested in politicians. It seems only appropriate that American entrepreneurs should have a similar opportunity to risk a little venture capital on the political system. Let's see if these hearty souls get a return on investment remotely as good as that enjoyed by the special interests.
Richard S. Dunham