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How a political gaffe boosted Etch a Sketch sales

Etch A Sketch still comes in its familiar red rectangle plastic box, but now there are blue and lime-green versions. When a Mitt Romney adviser used the image of an Etch a Sketch to explain how his candidate would pivot to the centre for general election campaign, sales jumped.


It might just be the original tablet and, for those not picky about pixels, the timeless toy suddenly thrust into U.S. presidential politics might even give the iPad a run for its money.

When a Mitt Romney adviser used the image of an Etch a Sketch to explain how his candidate would pivot to the centre for general election campaign, after moving to the right during the Republican primaries, his "gaffe" did much more than reinforce Mr. Romney's image as an unprincipled political chameleon.

He generated priceless publicity for the classic baby boomer toy and its tiny maker. Indeed, Ohio Art Co., based in the small town of Bryan (pop. 8,500), has seen the Etch A Sketch rocket to the top of U.S.-based Amazon's " movers and shakers" list overnight.

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Ohio Art chairman Bill Killgallon could not provide exact sales figures. And there is no breakdown of sales between political aides scooping up Etch A Sketches to use as a campaign prop – Romney rivals Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich have used one at every campaign stop – and nostalgic moms rushing out to reconnect with a beloved childhood toy.

"It's too early to tell whether this is a blip," Mr. Killgallon said in an interview with The Globe and Mail. "I believe right now it's political, as opposed to consumer driven."

By Friday morning, the Classic Etch A Sketch was in fifth place among toys and games experiencing the biggest sales boost from the previous day, while the Pocket Etch a Sketch was in sixth place.

However, both rank far down the list of best-selling toys at 294 and 329, respectively, posing no threat to the top seller, the Hunger Games Mockingjay Prop Rep Pin. But the latter will likely never match the 52-year-old Etch A Sketch in longevity or outpace its lifetime sales of more than 150 million units.

Unlike the images generated by an Etch A Sketch, which disappear with a few flicks of the wrist, Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom's statement may have created an indelible and damaging impression of the Republican frontrunner in voters' minds.

But Mr. Killgallon, 73, himself a registered Republican, hopes to use the incident to "erase political differences."

"We're strategizing right now to see how we can get moms and consumers to use the Etch A Sketch symbol to shake up this year's election," he said. "We hope it can bring us together, because we're divided now."

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A French invention, the Etch A Sketch was first produced in 1960 in Canada – a year before it entered the United States – by Toronto-based Kelton Corp. Mr. Killgallon's company now owns the worldwide rights to the product outside France. Now manufactured in China, it is distributed in Canada by Mississauga-based RP Toys.

"Canada's been an excellent market over the years for Etch A Sketch," Mr. Killgallon said. "In a good year, it was 7 per cent to 10 per cent of our volume. But it's tapered off to about 4 per cent of the U.S. market."

It may be hard getting a generation reared on video games hooked on the knobs and low resolution of a Classic Etch A Sketch. Thankfully, there's now an electronic version.

An Etch A Sketch app for the iPhone was among the first 50 designed for the Apple smartphone and an Android version recently hit the market. Ohio Art gets a cut of all sales.

"That play pattern is going to be the future," Mr. Killgallon said. "Everything is going to be done electronically."

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About the Author

Columnist Konrad Yakabuski writes on politics, policy and business for The Globe and Mail’s Comment section and Report on Business. More

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