With new ad campaign, Etch A Sketch attempts to stay in the conversation

A new Etch A Sketch ad.
Etch A Sketch
A new Etch A Sketch ad.
Etch A Sketch

After finding themselves smack in the middle of a political brawl last week, the makers of Etch A Sketch are taking some cues from the candidates on the campaign trail: They're launching an ad campaign touting a newly made-over political image.

"Politically, we lean right down the middle. Which way do you lean?" reads one ad, the text cutting straight through the middle of a bright yellow screen. (See the ad at left.)

Another reads: "Etch A Sketch is a lot like politics - there's a lot of gray area."

A third ad features an Etch A Sketch with an American flag drawn on it, underneath which it says: "We have a left knob and a right knob for each political party. (But remember, when both work together, we can do loop de loops.)"

Two weeks ago, it would have seemed highly unlikely that Etch A Sketch, the iconic red toy that has been entertaining small children for more than half a century, would be inserting itself into the national political conversation. But last week, after an aide to Mitt Romney suggested that his candidate would switch gears in the general election and hit the "reset button" - kind of "like an Etch A Sketch," the toy company basically had no choice.

Romney's rivals immediately hit on the comment as evidence that the former Massachusetts governor is a flip-flopper driven not by core values but political calculations. Rick Santorum hammered Romney especially hard for the comment; his spokeswoman, Alice Stewart, even showed up at a Romney event and started handing out mini Etch A Sketch toys in the parking lot.

Now, the Ohio Art Company, which makes Etch A Sketch, says it is launching an online ad and social media campaign as a way to keep the toy in the national dialogue through the fourth quarter of 2012 - which happens to comprise both the 2012 presidential election and the holiday shopping season.

"From a strictly a toy industry perspective, spring tends to be a particularly slow period of time," said Bill Southard, founder and CEO of Southard Communications, which represents Etch A Sketch. Southard said it wanted to find an "interesting and creative way where we can keep the conversation going throughout the fourth quarter."

In addition to a series of politically-themed online ads, Etch A Sketch has launched ShakeitupAmerica.net, where people can alternately shop for Etch A Sketch and other Ohio Art projects and register to vote.

"Our feeling has been that this is going to continue on a national level, probably even a local level, from now through this electoral cycle," Southard said. "We said, ok, how can we avoid fighting between the two parties and motivate the public to get engaged? Wouldn't it great if somehow Etch A Sketch could be part of an effort to get people out to vote regardless of their political affilation?"

Southard said he realized that there was a risk associated with turning a toy into a political symbol, but that the company had been careful to ensure that "the messaging is appropriate and it doesn't lean one way or the other."

"Knowing Ohio Art, which has always been a fairly conservative company from a marketing perspective, we'll probably err on the side of being conservative," Southard said.

Just "not politically conservative," he clarified.