Etch a Sketch’s maker capitalizes after being drawn into race

March 22, 2012

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 released in 1960 a central political metaphor when Romney aide Eric Fehrnstrom compared the Republican presidential candidate’s views to the erasable drawing pad, saying, “It’s almost like an Etch a Sketch. You can kind of shake it up, and we start all over again.”

The mention during a CNN interview Wednesday — and ensuing storm of rivals’ mockery and social-media reiteration — prompted a flood of attention. In the product’s 52 years, nothing spread the name Etch a Sketch so fast and wide, said Martin Killgallon, Ohio Art’s senior vice president of 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, a spokeswoman for the Bryan, Ohio-based toymaker founded in 1908, said she hadn’t received so many calls since June. That’s when Lyons, Colo., 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 users to turn 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.

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.

Ohio Art, which manufactures the plaything in China, employs about 100 people at its Toy Street facility in Bryan, 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’s also home of Spangler Candy, maker of Dum Dums lollipops.

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

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

Shares of Ohio Arts, which is thinly traded, more than doubled to close at $9.65 after three trades totaling 800 shares. The stock earlier reached $12.50 for the biggest intraday rise since at least 1980, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

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.”

— Bloomberg News

Mitt Romney through the years: A look at the former Massachusetts governor now seeking the GOP presidential nomination.

Toles draws Mitt Romney: A collection of cartoons about the former Massachusetts governor.

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