The Making of a President

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Bill Bradley whacks Al Gore on the side of the head after the Vice President pokes fun at his scanty funds. John McCain, suspended from a billowy white parachute, swoops down and knocks the Democratic bigwigs off their feet. "Vote for me! I'm an outsider," he pipes. Enter George W., huge moneybag in tow.

No, these aren't the real men, but the latest thing in political action figures from Salon.com. The dolls are part of the wry Webzine's latest articulation of its "Makes you think" tagline. They made their debut in a commercial that captured surprisingly sage youngsters playing political Barbies with the plastic candidates. The spot ran on cable and local television from late February throughout March, and the figures will continue to appear in an online comedic serial on the Salon site, which recently launched a new broadband division.

Odiorne, Wilde, Narraway & Partners, San Francisco, executed the spot under CW/ACD Jim Lansbury and AD/ACD Erich Pfeifer. Salon VP-marketing Patrick Hurley says the dolls are a playful way to convey the irreverent spirit of Salon.com and its Politics2000 subsite. "If it could get the featured 10-year-olds thinking through the issues, imagine what it could do for adults," he quips.

The dolls were created by Anatomorphex, the Hollywood effects house that crafted the Jack-in-the-Box clown head and the Lee jeans Buddy Lee doll. A seamstress made the tiny suits, and sculptors chiseled the noggins, which were stuck onto bodies of Surfer and Tuxedo Ken dolls.

Al Gore, whose real-life persona has been described as stone-faced and wooden, posed the biggest hurdle for the craftspeople. Anatomorphex president Robert Devine explains that the VP's generic features were difficult to translate. According to shop supervisor Paul Barnes, his team had to redo Al's head a few times before the Anatomorphex staff was comfortable with it. "We're still not satisfied with the final product," he adds. George W., on the other hand, was a cinch. "It was very easy to capture Bush, because the real Bush is almost a caricature himself," Barnes says.

The action figures stand about 12 inches tall but have a large on-screen presence. For the commercial, it helped to have Tool of North America director David Jellison on the job, who plucked his film crew from the set of Stuart Little.

Salon churned out extra copies of the plastic candidates -- 25 each of front-runners Gore and Bush. All were packaged and sent to various media in numbered boxes that touted the dolls' special features. Gore's reads "Now with bendable limbs." Bush's: "Attachable money bags sold separately."

Advertising Age's Gore ended up temporarily homeless on the freebie shelf, only to be mistaken by staff for a stray from the national toyfair. At MSNBC, on the other hand, the dolls led to an appearance by all four plastic politicians. Other sightings include the Dennis Miller Show and the Austin South by Southwest conference with Salon CEO Michael O'Donnell. The dolls' gig on the Salon site will continue in ongoing spoofs of the upcoming campaigns, according to Janelle Brown, Salon director of broadband programming. There is talk of introducing new players like Rudy and Hillary, she adds.

Patrick Hurley says Salon has been deluged with doll requests from political cronies, toy collectors, and even schoolteachers wanting to make politics "more real" for students. In response, Salon introduced a contest asking participants to pen a witty caption for an AP photo that shows McCain beaming down at his mini-self. The winner gets a complete set of the dolls, but losers need not despair: according to Hurley, Salon is currently checking out toy companies in Hong Kong for mass cloning of Al and George W.

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