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Etch A Sketch gaffe gives toy company a lift

Mitt Romney's campaign is probably wishing at this point that political statements were as easy to erase as the gray doodles on an Etch A Sketch, but the toy's century-old manufacturer is enjoying the unexpected publicity. As the candidate's campaign went into damage control mode after a top advisor's remark yesterday, executives at Ohio Art Company were thrilled at the sudden surge of interest in the iconic toy.

"This is the first time I've seen Etch A Sketch go viral so quickly," said Martin Killgallon, senior vice president of marketing and product development. 

The Killgallons — Martin's father Larry is the company's president — are a majority owner in Ohio Arts, and the family history with the company dates to 1955. Both father and son say it's still too early to tell if the Etch A Sketches being waved around at rallies by supporters of Romney's competitors will translate into a sales boom. 

One buyer told the company this morning that it sold roughly double the number of average units yesterday, Larry Killgallon said, but spring is a historically slow time for toy sales.

He said he'd be happy if Etch A Sketch's moment in the election cycle spotlight gets people to pay a little more attention to politics. "We hope it gets people's awareness up so they go out and vote in November."

Even if the Romney campaign's gaffe doesn't lead to a sales spike, Martin Killgallon said Ohio Arts is more than just Etch A Sketch. Founded in 1908, the company's roots are in metal lithography and packaging, and the production of things like popcorn tins and shaving cream cans still account for around 40 percent of the company's sales. 

The company has a handful of toy brands, but Etch A Sketch is the biggest seller — 150 million units sold since its debut in 1960 — as well as the most well-known. In recent years, the company has expanded on the classic Etch a Sketch with branded editions tied into the product's association with the "Toy Story" movies, a smaller "pocket" edition that is now the biggest seller in terms of units sold, and iPhone and iPad apps. 

Larry Killgallon said Etch A Sketch is responsible for about 35 percent of Ohio Art's toy revenue. The company's second-biggest seller is a line of tiny plastic building blocks called Nanoblocks. "That brand is growing very rapidly through Toys 'R Us and specialty toy shops," he said.

Going low-tech may seem counter intuitive, but one industry analyst said there's still room for toys that don't involve a screen or batteries.

"While technology is certainly prevalent in our lives, and our children’s lives, it does not mean that tech-less toys cannot succeed," Anita Frazier, analyst at the NPD Group, said via email. Even though it's old-school, Frazier said Etch A Sketch "has a lot going for it. It’s simple and intuitive for kids to use [and] it has the nostalgia factor going for it with parents."

There's a silver lining for Mitt Romney with every Etch A Sketch his opponents purchase, though: A big seller is Toys 'R Us, which was bought out in 2005 by an investor consortium including Romney's own Bain Capital.