Feel Like A Wreck?

It's known in the toy industry as the "crash 'n' bash" theory: give a 6-year-old boy a toy car and he's guaranteed to smash it against a wall or careen it off his little sister's bunk bed. The theory was unmistakably at work two years ago at a Tyco market-research session. Behind a two-way mirror, researchers watched a half dozen 5-to 8-year-old boys test-drive Crash Dummies, a new line of action figures and vehicles that Tyco hoped would be on every little boy's wish list for Christmas 1992. On impact, the car's fenders crumple and its wheels pop off. But even more irresistible: when the plastic mini-mannequins are left unbelted, their heads and limbs go flying. So appealing was the mayhem the toys created that most of the youngsters said they'd fork over their $25 consulting fee to own one. The response indicated a winner, says former Tyco executive Neil Werde. "Any time you have kids jumping up and down and squealing, you know you have a hit."

OK, so they may not be the next Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Cabbage Patch dolls. And parents may shudder at the thought of putting them under the tree this Christmas. But in an industry reeling from two flat years, The Incredible Crash Dummies are one of the bright stars of the holiday season. The result of an improbable venture between a federal government agency, a licensing company and a toymaker, the latest from Tyco Toys could rake in more than $50 million in sales this year-drawing a respectable chunk of the estimated $14 billion that Americans will spend on toys in 1992. In a market where there are few survivors-only a fraction of the 6,000 or so gizmos launched at the industry's annual Toy Fair in New York ever make it to market-the toy's evolution offers a rare look at what it takes to create a hit.

The story of the Crash Dummies is a two-year saga marked by bureaucratic maneuvering, controversy and shrewd marketing. The endearing dummies had an unlikely birthplace-the U.S. Department of Transportation. In 1985 the agency began airing a series of public-service ads starring crash-test dummies Vince and Larry-America's beloved seat-belt advocates. To get the word out to kids, the DOT hired two licensing companies to make Vince and Larry stars. Al Kahn, chairman of Leisure Concepts, tried peddling the dummies-as-toys concept to Mattel, but the company showed no interest. When he approached Tyco new-products guru Mike Lyden in March of 1990, however, the response was much warmer. "We were hungry for an action-figure line," Lyden recalls. "And with the public-safety message attached, it was a marketer's dream."

The challenge was to create a toy that not only got the buckle-up message across but was fun. Lyden turned the project over to Tyco's "boys' toys" team and reiterated the company mantra: think like a 6-year-old. In a three-hour brainstorming free-for-all, the group envisioned what the toy and its accessories would do. When a kid buckled a dummy's safety belt in its motorized sedan, Vince and Larry would blissfully survive the most heinous of accidents; leave it unbuckled, however, and the duo would become piles of body parts. The figures would be equipped with ejection buttons and jointed limbs that pulled apart. But keeping the car's price below $20 posed a problem. The solution: kill the costly motor and let the kids do the crashing.

To fine-tune their concept, the Tyco execs turned to some real experts-kids. In focus-group sessions, the company found that the DOT's female character, Darlene, didn't play well with little boys, who cringed at the notion of cracking up a girl. So Darlene became Daryl. "He still has a strangely shaped chest," says Neil Tilbor, the former head of research and development for Tyco's boys' unit.

Persuading the kids to love crash dummies was easy; winning over Tyco's own sales force and merchants was tougher. Many were taken aback by the violent smashups. When Tyco's salespeople were first shown the line there was dead silence. "These guys usually give us a round of applause," says Lyden. "This was more like one hand clapping."

The applause was not thunderous from retailers at first, either. Kmart didn't buy Crash Dummies at all. Others, including Wal-Mart, ordered conservatively, fearing they'd be left with excess inventory if the controversial toy flopped. Toys "R" Us, the nation's largest toy retailer, liked the idea but hated the dull white packaging. Tyco responded by ordering up a fluorescent orange box-an alteration that cost nearly $100,000 and delayed production by four weeks. "We had no other choice," says Tyco senior vice president Jim Alley. "Toys "R" Us is a 2,000-pound gorilla."

Determined to win over the naysayers and preserve its $3 million investment, Tyco revved up its marketing engines. At a presentation for toy buyers at Tyco's Mt. Laurel, N.J., headquarters that fall, executives arranged for a car to crash through a showroom wall, throwing a human crash dummy onto the floor. After the audience regained their composure, the dummy escorted them into a room filled with swivel chairs customized with seat belts. There, they were shown the toys, test data-and a $700,000 computer-animated advertising campaign that included a 20-second safety message. The efforts paid off. By February, when Tyco officials took their product to Toy Fair, they had already shipped tens of thousands of units to stores across the country.

But Crash Dummies ran into still more brick wall. After its Toy Fair debut, the press criticized the toy's graphic violence-and animal-lovers objected to two Crash Dummy characters-Hubcat, a feline with tire treads on her back, and Bumper, a dog that gets squashed. (The company had backed off from the names Road Pizza and Splat the Cat.) The folks at the DOT were getting edgy, too. They worried that the toy would overshadow the public-service campaign and bowed out, prompting Tyco to replace the original DOT dummies with others named Slick and Spin. Instead of rolling over and giving up, Tyco committed $7.2 million to a safety-promoting ad campaign, which has solidified the toy's positioning for the yuletide season. (A typical commercial begins with one Crash Dummy saying, "I feel like a wreck!" "OK," replies his companion, and together they drive into a tree.)

If Tyco's hunches prove correct, Crash Dummies will be around for yuletides to come. The '93 line will feature villains called Junkbots-dummies gone bad. Meanwhile, Slick, Spin and friends show up on everything from backpacks to bandages. A 30-minute computer-animated special is scheduled to air on CBS this spring. And New Line Cinema, the filmmaker for those reptilian heroes on the half shell, is developing a movie based on the figures', um, lives. The producers must assume that some dummies will watch anything.

Parents just wouldn't buy Kenner's Savage Mondo Blitzers. With names like Barf Bucket, who could blame them?