In today's rough-and-tumble political climate - where Demo-crats have waged war on the White House, red states are battling blue ones, and the character of America's political leaders is under constant attack - Richard Harrison, retiree-turned-toymaker, craved comic relief.
"I've been struck by how serious and nasty the political campaign has been," he says. "The charges being floated by both sides are so over the top and beyond all reason that I just have to laugh."
Since he feels the presidential campaign is devoid of humor, Mr. Harrison thought he'd try to insert some chuckles between the cheap shots - and settled upon what he calls a gold mine of possibilities: political toys. He has re- fashioned time-honored toys into partisan playthings, introducing the Genuine Texas Bushwhacker and the John Kerry Flip Flopper.
Harrison is one of several manufacturers trying to capitalize on the politically charged atmosphere by releasing political toys, primarily talking-action figures.
Who's buying them - and why?
The popularity of political playthings is an outgrowth of the action- figure craze that swept the US, says Robert Thompson, a professor at Syracuse University who's a frequent commentator on the latest pop-culture trends. The dolls also demonstrate an American adage, he adds: If you make it, someone will buy it. "Its existence creates the need for it."
Today's political landscape also comes into play, says Matthew Felling, media director at the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington, D.C.
"People are actively thinking about politics, so that seeps into their free time and impulse-item purchases," he says, noting that 12-inch Ann Coulters and Donald Rumsfelds adorn desks at many political think tanks.
People aren't buying the dolls for their kids, who are hardly cognizant of politics, points out Chris Byrne, a toy consultant. Consumers are typically men aged 18 to 34 with a decent disposable income. Some buyers, whose sons or daughters are serving in the military, might purchase these dolls for emotional reasons, while others hope to build an authentic collection in a "presidential cabinet."
Then there are shoppers looking for a snicker or two. "Though they look like toys, this is a different type of plaything," Mr. Byrne notes. "It's really a mass-market novelty product. It's the stuff you see in airports."
While the dolls' popularity won't match that of GI Joe anytime soon, sales are brisk.
"Villainous" action figures (Iraqi "Disinformation" Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf and Osama bin Laden) are the most popular creations of herobuilders.com, whose sales grew more than 400 percent from 2002 to 2003.
Toypresidents.com in Texas shipped its first action figure, a talking President Bush, in August 2003, and sales have grown "a lot faster than the initial pie-in-the-sky projection," says Dwayne Crosby, the delighted director of sales.
After talkingpresidents.com earned a mention in Matt Drudge's daily online report near the end of 2002, the website's server crashed from the unexpected onslaught of intrigued Christmas shoppers.
The toys range from serious collector's items to satirical gibes, depending on the toymaker's take on politics.
Toypresidents.com's mission is to portray the US presidents as heroes. The figures have hand-tailored suits, neckties with a double Windsor knot, and correct period-clothes. The 25 catchphrases they speak are selected based on merit.
John Lawler of Politicrazy in Berkeley, Calif., created the Bushocchio Hot Air Doll "to point out the hypocrisy of the man in the White House." He hopes it will be held aloft at anti-Bush protests.
Mr. Vicale of herobuilders.com says his Bush action figure was inspired by the president's speech at ground zero after 9/11. That was only the first of numerous world events that Vicale commemorated with a doll. After Hussein was unearthed in Iraq, he had a "Captured Saddam" figure ready within 22 hours. And the company quickly whipped together a "Mean Dean" doll after Gov. Howard Dean gave his infamous screaming speech.
Public figures naturally end up as victims of kitsch, Mr. Felling says. "America's media miasma, from print media to TV to film, manufactures celebrity, from Jesus to Paris Hilton to Saddam Hussein, all of whom have action figures."
And if public figures protest the hijacking of their image - as in Gov. Arnold Schwarzenneger's suit against Bosley Bobbers, a bobble-head doll company, for example - they'll draw attention to the product, tripling its value and providing free advertising, Felling adds.
What sort of staying power will these toys have?
Thompson believes the novelty will soon wear off. "These are drive-by industries. I can't imagine a product like that having much legs. In five years, addicts across America will have these things packed up in boxes never to be gazed upon again," he says. "The joke's been told."
Harrison thinks there will be a continuing market for his toys. "I believe there are enough people out there with a sense of humor," he says. "I just like to look on the funny side of things. I think it's a laudable goal."