By Darren Garnick - 06/11/12 11:58 PM EDT
Politicians, beware: The next time you say or do something stupid, being tormented by the 24/7 news cycle might not be the worst of your humiliation. Your mistakes might also be ridiculed at future yard sales — right next to the Screamin’ Howard Dean bottle openers and Al Gore “I invented the Internet” mouse pads.
Connecticut-based Herobuilders.com, which caused a stir after the 9/11 terrorist attacks by selling Osama bin Laden dolls dressed in pink tutus, still revels in bringing controversy, political scandals and embarrassing campaign gaffes to America’s toy box.
Feeling nostalgic about Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s (R) debate promise to eliminate three federal agencies, but forgetting which ones? For $59.95, the sound bite will live on forever in the mini-gov’s tiny plastic throat.
And still a bit giddy over the slip by Eric Ferhnstrom, adviser to presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney, when he compared his candidate’s campaign to an Etch A Sketch? There are still plenty of $49.95 “Sketchy Romney” dolls, complete with thumbnail-sized drawing tablets, available for your private museum.
“Whenever a scandal hits the headlines, I can have an action figure in production within 24 hours if I am highly motivated,” boasts Herobuilders founder Emil Vicale, a career product designer and developer who seemingly creates some toy lines for his own amusement. “Even if the story fizzles out unexpectedly, I lose nothing. A flop will still appeal to enough political junkies for us to break even.”
While a mass-market toy company must sell tens of thousands of an individual action figure or be forced to eat inventory, Herobuilders can manufacture the toys as it receives orders. Its only up-front cost is hiring a sculptor to carve the original head, which is then made into molds to make more. All of the muscular action figure bodies are purchased in bulk from China, while the heads are all made and hand-painted in the United States.
On its website’s masthead, Herobuilders declares itself “The Last American Toy Company.”
Vicale’s latest venture are large-jawed robotic heads of President Obama and Romney that can replace the heads on the classic Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots toy. The mechanical boxing game, originally introduced by Marx Toys in 1965, challenges players to clobber each other’s robot and force its head to pop up in defeat. The robots are now sold by Mattel.
“Politics is always a battle, but this toy levels the playing field. It allows you to beat up someone much bigger and more powerful than you, which you can’t do in the real world,” Vicale says.
Both the Romneybot and Obamabot heads are portrayed in their natural skin tones and not the corresponding Republican red and Democratic blue. Vicale said the prototype heads looked too creepy in primary colors, making Romney seem like the Devil and Obama an alien from the movie “Avatar.”
Although Romney has been widely parodied as a robot this presidential campaign, the metaphor is entirely coincidental for Vicale. He was planning to make Obama and John McCainbots in 2008, but couldn’t launch the product with enough time to market it.
Herobuilders is selling the modified Rock ’Em Sock ’Em set for $99 (or just the candidates’ heads, with instructions for reattachment surgery, for $39.95). The company has no affiliation with Mattel.
As a businessman, Vicale puts sales ahead of political ideology and presents both Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin as role models. Palin is also portrayed as a sex symbol, with multiple versions of her figure flashing cleavage, in addition to a limited-edition statuette with her barely draped in a red, white and blue towel.
An equal-opportunity exploiter, the Herobuilders CEO also markets an almost-naked doll of Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) wearing nothing but a fig leaf.
Although he doesn’t outwardly endorse a political party with his toys, Vicale says he usually leans Republican by default. “I was never interested in politics before launching Herobuilders,” he says. “Now I have to pay attention to this polarizing nonsense. I have a few Democrats in my family, and five out of six of them are unemployed. To me, that says it all.”
The political novelty business is always strong during presidential election years, but there is usually not a tremendous crossover market with fans of G.I. Joes and superhero figures.
“Most serious collectors want to escape from reality,” says Mark Bellomo, author of The Ultimate Guide to G.I. Joe: 1982-1994. “Our action figures take us back to more innocent times when we had few responsibilities other than watching Saturday-morning cartoons, eating breakfast cereal and playing with toys. No bills to pay. No job to grind out. No pets or children to feed. No responsibilities whatsoever other than to feed our prodigious imaginations.
“Herobuilders does not transport people to a more innocent time,” he adds. “They satirize reality. They ridicule. They deride. They make us think and focus on the more preposterous aspects of the real world.”
Vicale, who declines to share sales figures, readily admits he has no idea which political scandals will sizzle or fizzle at the cash register. Former New York Democratic Rep. Anthony Weiner’s anatomically correct doll — Whoopi Goldberg had fun playing with it on “The View” — reportedly flew off the shelves during his tweeted-body-parts affair.
However, disgraced former GOP Idaho Sen. Larry Craig, who was arrested for allegedly lewd behavior in a Minneapolis airport restroom, did not sell well.
“Maybe that story was just too gross for people,” Vicale concedes. “Looking back, who wants to put that on their living-room shelf?”
Plenty of squeaky-clean politicians in the news also get the Herobuilders treatment. The newest faces include Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), Reps. Kristi Noem (R-S.D.) and Sandy Adams (R-Fla.), and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R). None of those dolls is generating much revenue right now, despite the option to outfit them in seven different pairs of earrings. Evidence suggests that there might not be much crossover interest from Barbie collectors, either.
“We try to capture political moments in time that will never leave us,” Vicale says. “If Herobuilders just sat around and only made heroes, we’d go out of business tomorrow.”