Schpladow! Sprite seizes on vinyl trend

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When Miles Thirst was introduced last month as the new spokesman for Coca-Cola Co.'s Sprite, many consumers thought the 10-inch-tall afro-haired doll was a brazen takeoff of the Li'l Penny character from the old Nike commercials.

But collectors in designer toy circles recognized Thirst for what he really was: a friendlier version of the graffiti artist Hoodz characters produced by Mezco Toyz. They also saw it as a giant leap in the mass commercialization of the ultra-hip subculture known as urban vinyl.

"Sprite is trying to reflect what's next in pop culture rather than following pop culture," said John Carroll, Coca-Cola Co.'s group director of the Sprite brand unit. He said ongoing research with influencer teens and other trendsetters played a huge role in developing the character, from his clothes to how he was brought to life in TV spots.

Begun in Japan and Hong Kong in the late 1990s by artists that fashioned dolls using parts from GI Joe and other dolls, the urban vinyl movement is just now gaining steam in the U.S. Most buyers are collectors of sneaker, toy and comic art, doll collectors and fans of street culture. Series, inspired by anything from monsters and Goth creatures to urban pin-ups called Booty Babes, are generally limited to 100 to 500 units and range from $4 to $400 a piece. After-market prices on some of the more rare figures by artists like Michael Lau, one of the forefathers of urban vinyl, have reached into the thousands.

"We cater primarily to the collectors' market and the product we do is based on fashion and lifestyle rather than a traditional toy," said Mezco founder and artist Michael "Mez" Markowitz, who custom-designed Miles Thirst on behalf of Sprite agency WPP Group's Ogilvy & Mather, New York. Mr. Markowitz, who sells 18 limited-edition lines, with lots ranging from one to 5,000 units, said, "A lot of what we do is considered subculture vs. pop culture." In fact, the collector base in the U.S. is still so new that just a handful of clubs and Web sites sell the figures and its revenue base is too small for the International Toy Industry Association to track.

STAR-STUDDED FANBASE

However, within the past two years toy retailer KidRobot has opened dedicated urban vinyl boutiques in New York's SoHo and San Francisco, drawing an increasingly star-studded fan base, including Robert DeNiro and Whoopi Goldberg. Peter Arnell, chairman-chief creative officer of Omnicom Group's Arnell Group, is said to be a serious collector, but he didn't return calls for comment (perhaps not coincidentally, Pepsi-Cola Co. is his client).

Ogilvy creatives Rob Rooney and Dave Lloyd drew much of their inspiration for the Thirst character from KidRobot and from articles in music and lifestyle magazines. "Once it starts getting on the Hot List for Rolling Stone, we knew we were in front of the ball," said Chris Wall, partner-executive creative director.

After a dozen prototypes, the team selected their final model and auditioned more than 100 actors and voice-over artists to be the voice of Miles Thirst. The creative teams poured over Sean Jean and Rocawear ads for wardrobe ideas and director Kinka Usher had the doll change positions with each cut. Ogilvy also created a special lingo, with words like "honey dip," meaning a lovely lady, and "schpladow!" as an exclamation of good feelings.

The inanimate character has his own posse of at least 40 people from various agencies. Creative Artists Agency handled his NBA All-Star Game debut parties, including a surprise private concert by Outkast and pre-game appearances on TNT and MTV.com. Urban artist Shepard Fairey created 10,000 to 15,000 stickers, T-shirts and wild-postings. Viral agency SoulKool, New York, seeded hip Web sites and message boards with non-branded streaming videos a month prior to the launch. OgilvyOne developed the videos and Web site milesthirst.com. "Verge market" specialist Frank 151, New York, handled wild postings, and music promotions shop Cornerstone, New York, developed a mix CD with a deejay.

Within two weeks of the launch, 30 million impressions of Thirst clicked through on bolt.com, teenpeople.com and mtv.com, said Mr. Carroll. "It's not just about banner ads anymore," he said. "It's about integrating with the teen culture on the Internet and providing some entertaining content for young people."

Still, trendsetters in the urban vinyl world have mixed reviews on Miles Thirst.

Even though "Thirst represents more of a caricature," said Ethan Lance, a founding member of DaoJonz.com, a San Francisco-based Web site centered on designer toys and toy culture, "diehards might think it's the death of urban vinyl." He added, "Once everybody wears Von Dutch, what's the point anymore?"

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