Pick Your Product Placements Well

Etch A Sketch emerged from relative obscurity to become a hot new toy — and a political metaphor — after an off-hand comment by an aide to a presidential candidate.We are familiar with product placements in movies and TV shows, but are they now showing up in political statements? Maybe not, but don't tell that to the makers of Etch A Sketch, or Mitt Romney.

Sales of the 1960-vintage drawing toy soared after a comment by Eric Fehrnstrom, communications director for the GOP presidential hopeful, referred to it as a metaphor describing how Romney would reset his campaign in the fall if he wins the Republican nomination.

"It's almost like an Etch A Sketch," Fehrnstrom said. "You kind of shake it up and restart it all over again."

Etch a Sketch may be an iconic toy that has lost its luster in the digital age, but that didn't stop the toy maker's PR firm, Southard Communications, from swinging into action. They turned it into a real-life Toy Story adventure – without Tom Hanks and Tim Allen as voice talents.

The PR pros kept Fehrnstrom's quote in the national news, while maintaining political neutrality, by sending an Etch a Sketch to all the leading presidential candidates, including President Obama. They also dispatched Etch a Sketches to talk shows to hand out to studio audiences, resulting in loads of free air time showing how the toy works while kindling old memories among post-Baby Boomers.

Amazon reported sales of Etch A Sketch, which already has its place in the National Toy Hall of Fame, grew by 3,000 percent within 48 hours of Fehrnstrom's off-hand comment. Some have said we are witnessing Etch A Sketch mania.

For Romney, it was more nightmare than mania. PR support for Etch A Sketch stretched the life cycle of the reference for days and to broader audiences than political geeks.

In the process, the Etch A Sketch reference revived suspicions by social conservatives that the former Massachusetts governor would abandon his rightward veer on policy after he captured the GOP nomination.

Democratic operatives salivated at the prospect of holding up the Etch A Sketch comment as further evidence of Romney's political history as a policy flip-flopper.

Fehrnstrom kept his job, but the incident could make candidates think twice about product placements in their campaigns. Newt Gingrich erased any thought of a Breakfast at Tiffany's fundraiser. Rick Santorum stopped mentioning Rosetta Stone's online English language software. Obama dropped his endorsement of the Saul Alinsky School of Political Organization. Ron Paul quit flashing his gold Rolex watch.

Some shadows aren't as easy to shake as an Etch A Sketch.