You may love them. You may hate them. But one thing is certain: You won't forget them.

They are the Puttermans, the oddest collection of product spokesmen to come along in ages.

Unforgettable? According to a recent survey, their ad campaign has been among the top 10 most memorable on television this year.

But are the Puttermans effective? Well, the brand they're hawking -- Duracell -- is the top-selling line of batteries ("You can't top the coppertop").

Say hello to Herb, Flo, Zack and Trish Putterman, those absurdist, stylized, mean-as-mean-can-be, comic-strip-like figures evoking the nocturnal ramblings of a failed sitcom writer on a mood-altering drug.

The controversial, $50 million prime-time media blitz has been a curiosity on several fronts, not the least of which is the Puttermans' genetic origin. Who -- or what exactly -- are they?

"I was told {by the creative team at Ogilvy & Mather} to come up with something the public wouldn't recognize," recalled Steven Johnson, who fashioned the Puttermans. "We wanted viewers to look at them and wonder, Are these computer-generated figures? Full-body robots? Or stop-motion animation?"

They are, Johnson explained, actors sporting state-of-the-art latex prosthetics and head-to-toe wardrobes. The costumes, a series of boxy modular units, are made of stiff foam rubber coated with urethane. All the sections are substantially larger than the actors' body parts. The head is 35 percent bigger, the hands are twice actual size.

"And the costumes' shoulders are socketed like GI Joe's so that the actors are forced to move like robots," said Johnson, who founded XFX, an 18-year-old prosthetics company based in Sun Valley, Calif. "It takes each actor over four hours to get into the prosthetics and costumes."

The latex headgear, including the facial masks, are essentially caricatures inspired by the actors' own appearances, said Johnson, adding that the actors were chosen, at least in part, for their expressive faces.

The Puttermans were spawned largely in reaction to the Energizer bunny, whose constant presence on the tube was blurring brand identity, said Dan Anderson, Duracell's director of marketing.

"Viewers no longer knew the difference between the two products, and our sales were dipping," he said. "We realized we needed a new exploratory idea, although we wanted to continue with the toy theme {Duracell has promoted its batteries with a bunny of its own, toy cowboys and bride-and-groom dolls}. We wanted to see them evolve in a breakthrough way, but at the same time clearly maintain a connection to their toy heritage. The Puttermans are toys that have come to life."

(Outside the United States, Duracell's campaign vehicle is still its bunny, which preceded the Energizer-bunny theme 15 years ago.)

What's striking is just how culturally pervasive this strange animatronic Putterman family has become.

"ABC has expressed interest in having the Puttermans appear on one or two of their sitcoms, and Steven Spielberg is talking about making a feature film based on the Puttermans," said Neal Gomberg, partner and creative director at O & M, the New York-based agency behind the Puttermans.

TV and film appearances are not likely, however, because Duracell doesn't want to lose control of the Puttermans.

"In somebody else's hands, they could end up doing unappealing things," said Dan Anderson. "And that could ultimately reflect poorly on the product."

The Puttermans have entered the currency of pop-cult in another way too.

"In a recent newspaper article, the reporter noted that Bob Dole looked like a Putterman," Gomberg said. "And when Jay Leno appeared on Larry King,' he objected to the actor playing him in the HBO movie Late Shift,' on the grounds that he sounded like a Putterman."

Gomberg added that licensing companies want to acquire merchandising rights to the Puttermans -- T-shirts, dolls and lunch boxes.

The semi-robotic family has also made its oddball presence felt on its Internet web site, http://www.duracell.com. Besides product information, the home page offers "Puttermania" -- you can access any commercial and download it. And there's the chance to be "Puttermanized," in which your on-line photograph is morphed to resemble a Putterman.

Over the past year and a half, the Puttermans have undergone a subtle evolution in response to negative feedback from the public and some media critics.

The family has moved from its original coarseness to a kind of sendup gentility. To date, there have been two sets of Putterman ads. A third batch, to air in the fall, is on the drawing board. The first series, directed by Barry Sonnenfeld ("Get Shorty"), is either harsh or wickedly funny, depending on your comic tastes.

In the commercials, there is no shortage of targets of derision. Case in point: the windy gallery guide whose pomposity wanes only when his non-Duracell battery does, much to the Puttermans' delight.

And they are similarly gleeful when the overly chatty relative at the family picnic goes face-down in her plate when her non-coppertop gives out.

"It's easy to find these people repulsive, unsettling and ghoulish, especially when they run out of steam and fall face-first into the spaghetti," noted Anthony Vagnoni, editor of Creativity, an Advertising Age supplement.

And there's a deeper lack of humanity in operation here: the picture of a world powered by Duracells in which those who are not fueled by the same batteries are doomed to die, Vagnoni suggested.

"But then all humor is a little sharp-edged and nasty," he said. "I love the ads, the absurdity, the irony. We need challenges like that."

Gomberg cited yet another dark side: On one hand, viewers see the Puttermans as an alien life force with some kind of "congenital defects." But on the other hand, the Puttermans hit close to home. Too close.

Still, Dan Anderson insisted he was "shocked" at the initial negative outpouring. "We did not want the ad campaign to denigrate the quality of the product."

So a new tack was taken.

The most recently aired ads have lost a little of their edge -- no death and laughter -- and a new theme emphasizes the positive: "No battery is stronger longer."

"Instead of human beings who die, it's the boom box that may die," said Dan Anderson, although in this rosy universe, inanimate objects don't expire either.

Consider the spot featuring daughter Trish Putterman and beau Bruce on a porch swing. It's a romantic evening and she wants it to go on forever. He checks his Duracell-packed boom box and assures her it will. The product is promoted through classic comic miscommunication.

Then there's the Grandma spot. Visiting the strange old biddy, the Puttermans discover that she can't stop dancing -- kicking, spinning and wheeling about. "No battery is stronger longer."

Grandma is the most popular ad, said Dan Anderson. "There's a lot of energy and no negative attitudes toward old people. I also like the boy and girl on the swing. It has a nice retro feeling. Of course, each ad affects each person differently."

Gomberg agreed, calling the Puttermans "the great Rorschach test" for viewers.

The storylines have been softened and so have the visible elements. "We've removed some of the lines and darkness around the eyes," said O & M creative director Eric Anderson. "Their look is altogether more monochromatic and their movements less robotic. When the family visits Grandma, for example, they glide up the steps on a moving track, as opposed to walking stiffly themselves.

"And in the camping scene {in yet another spot}, the whole family, now standing on a revolving disc {not visible to viewers}, spins around as a unified group when they become conscious of the bear next to them. Their reactions and movements are synchronized to suggest the classic cartoon."

All the spots in the second batch, said Eric Anderson, who served as its art director, are slanted to evoke "a stylized and whimsical fantasy. We wanted to create a parallel world that was likeable, but not truly realistic."

Despite the changes, there still are viewers who are uncomfortable with the Puttermans, said Gomberg. "It's guilt by association."

Like many prime-time commercials, the Duracell campaign targets housewives, or more precisely, "families with kids where there is a lot of battery consumption," said Dan Anderson. "We also wanted to appeal to future audiences -- the 18-to-24-year-olds who have grown up on computers and are generally intrigued by technology."

There is reason to believe those battery-consuming youngsters do not share the angst that some of their parents have voiced over the Puttermans' aesthetics, not to mention their cruelty.

"When we were shooting on location, local kids were swarming all over the actors," recalled Eric Anderson. "They especially loved Grandma -- who, by the way, is played by a man. (Duracell, in an effort to preserve the Putterman mystique, will not reveal the actors' identities.)

"And as I watched these kids happily interacting with the Puttermans, all of whom were sporting plastic costumes and giant batteries in their backs, I wondered, Is there something wrong with this picture? So I asked one of the little girls, Don't you think they're weird?' And she said, No. They're really nice.' "

Gomberg recalled an on-location encounter of his own that suggested the Puttermans can put adults at ease, too.

"Here we all are, me and these oversized plastic people, sitting in a giant tent with five air-conditioners blowing icy air on us -- the costumes are unbearably hot -- talking about the most everyday occurrences: problems with boyfriends, wives, children and jobs. And it feels perfectly natural. In fact, they no longer seem odd. That's surreal."

So how is Duracell doing in the market place now?

Duracell is guarded with figures, but says post-Putterman sales have increased by a percentage in the low double-digits.

In a recent Ad Track poll of consumers cited by USA Today, 45 percent thought the Energizer Bunny is an effective ad campaign, and 33 percent considered the Puttermans effective. In terms of likability, 28 percent liked the Puttermans commercials "very much" and 27 percent said the same for the Bunny.

In a two-month period this year, said Dan Anderson, "there's been a dramatic increase in shares and sales," although he underscored that there are so many factors in play that a product's success cannot be attributed solely to TV ads.

The company's top brass is clearly pleased with the results. Gomberg said he recently received "e-mail from Duracell's co-chair, congratulating us for creating kinder, gentler Puttermans."

The future of the Puttermans will continue along the same comic, expressionistic lines with, ideally, a touch of cuddliness thrown in.

Eric Anderson remarked that he couldn't imagine anyone's not liking the Puttermans, especially now. "They're the most misunderstood plastic people in the world," he said.

Gomberg added, "They may be plastic, but, hey, they're only human." CAPTION: Flo, Herb, and their kids Zack and Trish: They are the Puttermans. CAPTION: "Dancing Grandma" is the most popular Putterman spot. CAPTION: Under Grandma Putterman's plastic exterior beats the heart of -- a man.