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Fisher-Price has gone prime time.

If you watch cable or network television in the early evenings, chances are you've seen the toy manufacturer's new advertising campaign, which features commercials shown during popular shows like "thirtysomething" and "Cheers."

The television ads speak directly to parents about Fisher-Price's traditional playthings for infants and toddlers. The accompanying visual images depict the joy toys can bring to a household.

This latest media blitz is an integral part of Fisher-Price's strategy to rebound from a disastrous year of plant closings, job cuts and slumping sales, industry observers say. The television commercials, like the company's new toy line, represent a "back-to-basics" approach. It's "a return to the simple, basic toys which made Fisher-Price a great company," said Larry Carlat, editor of Toy & Hobby World magazine, an industry trade journal.

Unlike its previous television commercials, which were sandwiched between cartoons on Saturday mornings, the toy company's prime-time ads emphasize its 60-year legacy of making children happy. They also prominently display the Fisher-Price brand name and discuss the quality and safety consumers have come to expect from the East Aurora-based manufacturer.

"We use ads to say good things about the product," explained Strawn Cathcart, the company's vice president of U.S. marketing. "And we use product features to say good things about Fisher-Price," he said.

The toy company recently has aired a series of thematic commercials that highlight several playthings and a common feature found in all them, such as durability, educational value or creativeness.

For example, one Fisher-Price ad shows a father mowing the grass while his young son follows along with the Bubble Mower. Meanwhile, inside the house a little girl is helping her mother by using the Fisher-Price Magic Vac on the living-room rug.

And the announcer says:

Fisher-Price knows that it's not just the bubbles that make kids want a mower. Or only the sprinkler that makes our waterbarrow look like fun. Or even the fancy features that make them want our vacuum cleaner.

It's the fact that, every week, a child's greatest heroes mow the lawn, water the flowers and vacuum the carpet. Heroes that go by the name of Mommy and Daddy.

That commercial, along with 21 other television spots, was created by Waring & LaRosa, a small New York City-based agency that in May won back Fisher-Price's consumer advertising business from two of America's largest agencies, J. Walter Thompson Co. and Backer Spielvogel Bates Worldwide.

From 1969 to 1985, Waring & LaRosa was responsible for developing all of Fisher-Price's advertising. The agency helped the toy manufacturer's brand name become "a household word," said Joseph A. LaRosa Sr., the firm's chairman and creative director.

"When we started with Fisher-Price, it sounded like a law firm. Over the years, we've helped it become widely known for its quality, safe toys," he said in interview from his Manhattan office.

LaRosa added: "What we are trying to sell in these ads is trust. We are telling parents: 'We understand what you're looking for (in toys) because we're also parents.' "

The advertising man and Cathcart, the company's vice president of marketing, both stressed that Fisher-Price isn't trying to create a new image for itself. Instead, they argue that the company is returning to its core business, infant and preschool toys.

"Fisher-Price doesn't have an identity crisis, like a lot of companies do today," LaRosa said. "In the last six months, you've just seen it getting back to its true identity."

From 1986 to 1989, much of Fisher-Price's marketing efforts focused on trying to get kids to buy its new line of expensive, faddish toys. Millions of dollars were spent on commercials touting a battery-powered sports car, a camcorder, a fancy doll house and other toys aimed at older children.

Most of those promotional toys bombed and have been blamed for Fisher-Price's severe financial problems. The company, however, had no choice but to enter new toy markets in order to satisfy the demands of its parent, the Quaker Oats Co. of Chicago, Cathcart said.

The Midwestern food giant wanted more profits from its toy subsidiary, so Fisher-Price executives gambled that they could sell playthings to older children, he explained.

"We had to spend a lot of money to establish brand names for each of those promotional toys," Cathcart said. "Today, all we have to do is spend money introducing the new products . . . not to establish the Fisher-Price brand name," he added, explaining only about 50 of the company's 300 toys are featured in print or television ads.

Fisher-Price spent $36.7 million on advertising last year, according to Leading National Advertisers, an ad industry service. Several stock analysts predicted that the company's ad budget for this year is off by about $10 million because its sales have fallen to $600 million from 1989's record $844.8 million.

The trend toward working couples, Cathcart says, has dramatically altered marketing efforts by companies that sell products to parents. With mothers working more often than not, television commercials must be in prime time in order to reach a broad audience, he said.

Moreover, consumers don't spend much time thinking about what they are going to buy until they get inside the store. So, brand names have become increasingly important, Cathcart said.

Large retailers, like Toys "R" Us, Target, Kmart and Wal-Mart, also expect toy manufacturers to spend money on advertising campaigns to ensure a certain level of consumer spending, he added.

"It makes perfect sense for Fisher-Price to emphasize its leadership position in preschool," said Carlat of Toy & Hobby World magazine. "Those TV commercials can only benefit them."

He concluded: "Fisher-Price is fortunate because it is one of the golden names, along with McDonald's and Disney, in the eyes of consumers."

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