They have names like Farrell Furskin, Randy Reindeer and Ted E. Bear, and at fast-food chains this Christmas season they're hotter than grease on the griddle.
The fast-food companies are spending millions of dollars on stuffed toys to use as holiday promotions. This marketing ploy is not about toy sales, however, but hamburger sales -- and the influence kids have on where their parents eat.
"Everybody's giving away something fuzzy," said William Trainer, an analyst of fast-food companies for Merrill Lynch.
But Trainer has doubts about the effectiveness of such promotions when every chain has something to give away or sell with its burgers and fries. "If everybody's got them, how does it give any one of them an edge?" he asked.
The folks at Hardee's, where more than 10 million of the "plush premiums" of Tonka Pound Puppies and Pound Purries have been sold with menu items, beg to differ. "I think they've helped the whole industry," said Jerry Singer, a spokesman for the company, which has had premium promotions for the last five years. "I don't think they detract from the reason we're in business, which is to sell food."
In the $60 billion fast-food market, promotions are serious business, with the chains using months of market research to decide which character to offer. None of the chains will disclose how much they spend on testing, advertising and actually buying the items, though it's certainly tens of millions of dollars. And, sources say, the companies watch closely what their competitors are offering.
Most of the toys are sold by the restaurant chains for between $1.99 and $2.79 with the purchase of certain food items.
December is considered a month to attract holiday shoppers, many of them with children. "If a child wants to go to Roy Rogers or McDonald's, they influence the family's dining decisions," said Mary Maguire, a spokeswoman for Roy Rogers, which is doing its first plush promotion this year with Ted E. Bear and Friends, stars of several television specials.
Fast-food restaurants account for eight of every 10 restaurant visits by children under 18, according to the National Restaurant Association. More importantly, they bring parents in the 18-to-49 age group -- the higher-spending target market for fast-food chains.
One of the things many of the hamburger chains hope the stuffed toy promotions will do for them is to attract some business away from McDonald's, the acknowledged industry leader in appealing to children with its Ronald McDonald character and its Playland areas outside most restaurants.
"Basically, McDonald's owns the kids business," Singer said.
One of the ways McDonald's goes after that business is with tremendous spending on advertising. The burger giant spends an estimated $40 million, or 20 percent of its $200 million annual network television budget, on children's programming, according to Advertising Age. And it is the only fast-food chain that advertises on Saturday morning network children's shows.
By offering customers cuddly toys that often are tied to children's shows, the other fast-food chains think they can get at least a portion of McDonald's traffic -- even though McDonald's has its own holiday promotion with tree ornaments depicting Jacques and Gus, two mice featured in the re-release of Walt Disney's "Cinderella."
Of the fast-food promotions, only Burger King's four reindeer characters are not in some way aligned with a children's television character, though they're a popular item in Hallmark stores. But Hardee's Pound Puppies and Wendy's Furskins, like Roy Rogers' Ted E. Bears, are copied from characters on Saturday morning TV.
Marketing experts disagree on the effectiveness of the toy promotions. Like the teddy bear promotions at department stores, some say, they eventually lose their effectiveness.
The promotions do present certain problems, such as how to keep their distribution from slowing down the fast-food line. But the ultimate problem is running out of toys.
No one, the experts admit, wants to risk the ire of a parent with a crying child when the last toy is gone. Some franchisors put out memos telling franchisees how to handle the situation or have set up telephone hot lines so new toys can be distributed quickly to stores that need more.
Burger King's Myers said the chain ordered 12 million reindeer to give out, but "They're running out of them all over the country," she said.