FREE ADVERTISING is just about the only advertising the Etch A Sketch gets these days, and the Ohio Art Company, which introduced the toy in 1960, couldn’t have paid for a better publicist than Eric Fehrnstrom. “It’s almost like an Etch a Sketch,’’ the Mitt Romney strategist said, when asked how the former governor would adjust in the fall after a GOP primary campaign that pulled him well to the right. “You can kind of shake it up, and we start all over again.’’ Whatever the campaign implications, the analogy was a vivid one for Baby Boomers and Gen Xers - millions of whom remember trying to draw by turning those two white knobs on the classic red-framed toy.
Fehrnstrom’s comments invited other comparisons between politics and classic toys - if Romney is like an Etch A Sketch, are super PACs like Hungry Hungry Hippos? - but it also triggered a run on Etch A Sketches. Sales of the toy on Amazon.com, Reuters reported, spiked by 1,556 percent.
Even if Rick Santorum hadn’t started waving an Etch A Sketch at campaign rallies, and even if Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich, and the Democratic National Committee hadn’t all cut ads featuring it, the toy might well have been swept up sooner or later in a wave of retro chic. As you read this, bearded Brooklynites are taking moody shots of one other with Hipstamatic, an app that lets a $650 cutting-edge phone produce images like those from a cheap ’60s-era Instamatic. A brand called Lomography (slogan: “The future is analogue’’) is trying to build a global photographic movement around a Soviet-era camera. If nostalgia and inconvenience are the twin hallmarks of a hot art medium, the Etch A Sketch — with its internal stylus that moves only vertically and horizontally — is just about perfect.
In the last couple of decades, though, the Etch A Sketch has languished at the mercy of marketing and manufacturing trends. Production moved from Ohio to China in 2000; many online reviewers complain that the toy isn’t as sturdy as it once was. There have been periodic attempts to extend the Etch A Sketch line, including a travel version, a pink version, and one co-branded with “Toy Story,’’ the 1995 movie about sensitive discarded toys. Today, there’s even an Etch A Sketch iPhone app, whose multi-color palette only underscores the limitations of the original.
The venerable toy deserves to be considered on its own terms. It’s a nifty battery-free device that offers, as Fehrnstrom let on, the seemingly endless opportunity to start again. The best moment with an Etch A Sketch is right after you shake it, when its shiny screen is a blank slate.