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Retailing: The Delicate Side of Beavis and Butt-Head

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Beavis and Butt-head are about to give a whole new--if demented--meaning to Christmas shopping.

Just in time for the holidays, the nasty MTV cartoon characters--who get their jollies from torturing small animals and making crude remarks--have their faces plastered across everything from $15 boxer shorts to talking dolls that utter the duo’s patented phrase, “This sucks.”

The pre-holiday merchandising of Beavis and Butt-head has evolved into a very delicate matter for MTV--and retailers that carry the merchandise. Last month, an Ohio mother charged that an episode of the animated show caused her 5-year-old son to start a fire that killed his 2-year-old sister. (MTV quickly moved the show to a later time slot and has since removed all references to fire.)

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Even as the devil-may-care characters are wildly popular with teen-agers and some preteens, many parents have taken a negative view of the wise-cracking duo, and some might take a similar view of the merchandise. The concern: Young children--swayed by the animation--and preteens--swayed by their older siblings--might be strongly influenced by the crass pair.

Well aware of this, one major licensee, Woodland Hills-based Dakin, created a new division--Out of Character--so its name would not be directly associated with the line. And some major department store chains--including Nordstrom and J.C. Penney--have rejected the line altogether.

Beavis and Butt-head merchandise runs the gamut, from $15 T-shirts to $80 denim jackets. There are also pewter pins for $3.99 and, yes, Beavis and Butt-head Christmas stockings for $8.

“It is ludicrous to suggest that these products are in any way harmful or violent,” said Carole Robinson, an MTV spokeswoman.

Meanwhile, marketing experts predict Beavis and Butt-head merchandise will post $80 million to $100 million in total sales--far less than the $2 billion in merchandise the Simpsons have sold so far.

“It has a very small core audience,” said Karen Raugust, editor of Licensing Letter, a merchandising newsletter. “And the bad press certainly doesn’t help the licensing.”

While the controversy may make Beavis and Butt-head more intriguing to teens, “parents won’t pick it up, and that will hurt the business,” said Irma Zandl, president of the New York-based teen research company Zandl Group.

Yet another youth research expert says the mass merchandising could quickly kill the duo’s popularity because teen-agers--unlike young children--are often quick to reject fads embraced by the mass market.

“This will force teens away from the fad,” said Michele Kaminski, a Pittsburgh-based consultant. “It will become very uncool and very short-term.”

But MTV executives insist Beavis and Butt-head merchandise sales are tremendous. “In certain retailers, the posters are outselling Jurassic Park’s,” said Van Toffler, senior vice president of business development at MTV.

MTV has already received five film offers for the duo, he said. Bookshops are clearing the shelves for Wednesday’s scheduled debut of “MTV’s Beavis and Butt-head: This Book Sucks.” And in two weeks, Geffen records will release the CD “The Beavis & Butt-Head Experience,” featuring Cher singing a remake of her and ex-husband Sonny’s hit “I Got You Babe,” this time with Butt-head.

MTV and its licensees say the merchandise is aimed at teens--not young children. There are no Beavis and Butt-head lunch boxes. No sleeping bags. T-shirts are in adult sizes.

But also in the marketplace are Beavis and Butt-head rag dolls, stickers and tattoos. And marketing experts say they expect that many young children will nag their parents for the goodies.

“I have a 7-year-old who loves Beavis and Butt-head,” said Renee Fraser, a Los Angeles ad psychologist. “I think it’s because she has so much fun saying Butt-head.”

When children see cartoon characters expressing cynical attitudes like Beavis and Butt-head’s, she said, “they think it gives them credibility to express the same negativity.”

Not wanting to be associated with that image, J.C. Penney declined to carry the line. “It’s not appropriate for children,” said Duncan Muir, a spokesman for the department store. But some Sears stores are carrying the apparel “because of customer interest,” spokeswoman Mary Jean Houde said.

Beavis and Butt-head merchandise is one of the best-selling product lines at Spencer Gifts, said Dennis Jarvis, vice president of marketing at the Pleasantville, N.J.-based national gift shop chain. But Spencer briefly considered dropping the line after the fire-related death led to a flurry of negative publicity for the show.

“We stepped back and took a second look,” Jarvis said. But since no consumers complained, he said, Spencer continues to carry the line.

“Consumers are asking us for more of the stuff--not less,” he said.

The merchandise is clearly a hit at Musicland/Sam Goody stores. “It’s the most happening thing in the shop,” said Jeff Booras, assistant manager of the Sam Goody store at the Brea Mall. “I get at least three calls a day from people asking for the newest Beavis and Butt-head T-shirt. They want to be the first to wear it to school.”

The shirts are made by Burbank-based Stanley DeSantis Inc., which expects to sell up to $12 million worth of them over the holiday season. Although several Midwest retailers that didn’t approve of the shirts have returned their orders, most can’t keep them in stock, said Stanley DeSantis, owner of the apparel company.

Dakin figured out a way to profit from the line without risking its reputation. Its name appears nowhere on the merchandise.

“I wrestled with this,” said Bob Solomon, chief executive at Dakin, which expects the Beavis and Butt-head merchandise--from talking dolls to water bottles--to account for 3% of its volume this year. “The only way I could bring us to do this was to create a new line.”

Briefly . . .

Los Angeles-based Davis, Ball & Colombatto has picked up the $2-million ad business for two retirement communities developed by Phoenix-based Del Webb Corp. . . . Davis Ball has also retained the $7-million account for Dallas-based Chief Auto Parts that was under review, although Western International Media has picked up the media-buying portion of the business. . . . Santa Monica-based Anita Santiago Advertising has won the $2-million Spanish-language ad business for the California Fluid Milk Processor Advisory Board.

Beavis and Butt-Head for Sale

Just in time for the holidays, Beavis and Butt-head, the zany MTV cartoon characters, are about to become Beavis and Butt-head the merchandising machine. Here are licensees that hope to cash in on the duo’s popularity:

Product Licensee When available? T-shirts, caps, jackets Stanley DeSantis Inc. Now Talking dolls, mugs, Out of Character Now stationery (division of Dakin Inc.) Calendars Landmark Calendars Now Boxer shorts College Concepts Inc. Now Stickers, tattoos, key OSP Publishing Inc. Now chains Costume masks Morris Costumes Now Pewter jewelry Starline Creations Now Soft-cover book Callaway Editions Wednesday “This Book Sucks” (Pocket Books) CD, cassette Geffen Records Nov. 23 “The Beavis & Butt-head Experience” Comic books Marvel Comics Jan., 1994 Video games Nintendo, Sega, Viacom Fall, 1994 New Media Feature film Now negotiating Fall, 1994 Trading cards Now negotiating Fall, 1994


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