Crash Dummies a real hit But toy brings government few royalties

April 11, 1992|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Staff Writer

More crashes than auto racing, more body parts than an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, the toy industry's newest smash hit involves a lot of smashing and hitting.

They are the Incredible Crash Dummies, action figures modeled after the talking crash-test dummies featured in television ads for seat belts. Introduced into stores just two months ago, the toys have become an overnight sensation.

The object is for children to put the unlucky characters inside their "student driver crash car" and fling them into walls. The dummies fly head first through the windshield, scattering limbs and heads amid the toy wreckage.

The big winner in this phenomenon is New Jersey-based manufacturer Tyco Toys Inc., which expects sales of its crash dummies to top $40 million this year.

The loser may be U.S. taxpayers, who have earned just $300 in royalties so far under the government's licensing agreement with Tyco.

And advertising experts predict that "Vince and Larry," the original talking dummies whose public service announcements (PSAs) encourage people to buckle up, may be forced off the air by the for-profit newcomers. Their reasoning: Television stations will object to running free ads that could benefit Tyco.

"It's our fear that instead of enforcing the campaign, [the toys] are going to reduce the amount of time the PSAs will get," said Eva Kasten, senior vice president of the non-profit Advertising Council, which distributes the highly successful announcements for the government.

Any parent of a child between and 9 will doubtless recognize the Tyco product from the 15- and 30-second ads that began running on television even before the toy hit store shelves in early February.

The advertisements feature computer-animated dummies who happily crash their car, which features a blow-away windshield, a shear-off roof and crunch-in fenders. A typical line of dialogue: "I feel like a wreck," says one. "OK," replies the other, and they cheerfully ram into a tree, leaving them in pieces.

A survey of stores in the Baltimore area found most had already sold out of their initial supplies of the action-figure line, and kids are hungry for more. Customers snapped up all the dummies at Patowmack Toy Shop in the Columbia Mall within two weeks; the store still averages 10 call-in requests each day, according to its manager, Beth Green.

"I haven't seen anything like this since Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," said Howard Stephens, merchandising manager for Lionel Kiddie City in Eastpoint.

David S. Leibowitz, a toy industry analyst for American Securities in New York, said the 6-inch dummies, which retail for $6, and their car and other accessories, which range from $12 to $30, have already become one of Tyco's best sellers.

"It would have worked with or without the government program," said Mr. Leibowitz, "but having the awareness of the government program going in, it really enhanced the product's opportunities."

Even Tyco, the nation's fourth-largest toy maker with $549 million in sales last year, concedes it might never have thought up the dummies if not for the Vince and Larry campaign. The characters were created in 1986 by advertising firm Leo Burnett Co. Inc. for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The goal was relatively simple. Commercials that tell people to use seat belts were like nagging parents: They could cajole, but in the end a lot of young people tuned them out.

Jill Baskin, account supervisor for Leo Burnett, said that in recent surveys Vince and Larry were recognized by about two-thirds of respondents, putting them on par with Frank and Ed, the two who plug Bartles & Jaymes wine coolers.

From 1986 to 1990, the Vince and Larry campaign received about $200 million in free advertising from media outlets around the country, said Ms. Kasten of the Ad Council.

The highway administration, looking to capitalize on the dummies' popularity, agreed several years ago to allow a private non-profit organization, Entertainment Industries Council, to market them.

That organization, which specializes in developing products with a socially responsible message, sold Tyco on the idea of action figures two years ago. Under terms of the royalty agreement, the Entertainment Industries Council would receive 6 percent of gross profits from Tyco and the federal government would get 6 percent of that, said Brian L. Dyak, the organization's president.

The government had approval over the commercials and made sure the Tyco products emphasized seat-belt safety. Each Tyco ad includes a line, "Don't you be a dummy. Buckle your safety belt and leave the crashing to us."

But the highway agency decided to back out of the deal when it became clear that Crash Dummies were shaping up as another Ninja Turtles. "From our perspective, we didn't want Vince and Larry to do that," said Kathleen DeMeter, an assistant chief counsel at the agency.

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