APART FROM THE FACT THAT THEY CAN HATCH WITHIN MINUTES AFTER contact with water, brine shrimp are unappealing creatures. They're ant-sized and translucent and bear a striking resemblance to sperm. Yet brine shrimp packaged as "Sea Monkeys" are currently sold as children's companions, and portrayed on their boxes as pink, pear-shaped simian creatures with spindly legs, paunches and coy smiles. They are one of the most impressive achievements in the annals of marketing.
Harold von Braunhut, a former manager of novelty acts, first packaged his patented hybrids in 1960, transforming the Sea Monkeys into American icons via millions of comic book ads. Von Braunhut also wrote the 32-page handbook that is included in most Sea Monkey kits to this day, which states that the creatures can be hypnotized, play baseball and rise from the dead. The tone of the handbook is florid and huckstery: "It seems that at mating time in the Animal Kingdom, the males engage in combat to win the fin, paw, flipper, hoof, wing or what-have-you, of their 'lady love.' "
In 1999, the Sea Monkeys were in line for an overhaul: The freeze-dried creatures were, and still are, licensed to Educational Insights Inc., a Carson-based company whose ExploraToy division handles production development and sales of the Sea Monkeys. According to then-art director Gregory Bevington, the classic '70s naked monkeys lounging on a seaweed bank in front of a castle are too "lame" for today's children. Hoping that a new look and some razzle-dazzle would parlay Sea Monkeys from an undisclosed-but-"significant" portion of their $40 million in annual sales to a $25-million-a-year line, Educational Insights brought in Alan Fine, who spent the majority of his adult life in Mattel's marketing department.
"I have a lot of background on what is attractive to kids, what works and what doesn't work," said Fine, who is no longer with the company. Before leaving in August, Fine helped wage a multimillion-dollar media blitz in honor of the Sea Monkeys' 40th anniversary. Five new products were being unveiled, including a Sea Monkeys speedway and an LCD watch that houses up to two Sea Monkeys for up to 24 hours. But the linchpin of Fine's campaign was a brand new television commercial featuring greatly altered Sea Monkeys, which has yet to air.
Months before I saw this commercial, I drove down to Educational Insights, hoping to see the new Sea Monkeys. Having hatched more than my share as a child, I was curious about the kind of concessions needed to entice the Game Boy-loving children of today. I had no idea this would turn into a story about a white supremacist inventor and the nice men who were marketing his invention to children.
ANTICIPATING MY ARRIVAL, BEVINGTON SET UP A PICTORIAL history of Sea Monkey packages on a conference-room table at ExploraToy. On one side were classic ads featuring the nuclear Sea Monkey family, virtually unchanged since the '70s. "There's a dad, the mom and a couple kids," Bevington explained in a droll voice. "The mom has a little flip hairdo, and, basically, they look like naked people with webbed tails and feet and hands and three prongs sticking out of their heads. They have potbellies and skinny arms and legs so they're not really physically fit."
On the other side of the table, Bevington arranged artists' submissions for the updated Sea Monkeys. A radical departure from their sweet, potbellied predecessors, the new models had enormous torsos and tree-trunk legs. Some wore scaly breast plates; others sported capes. "If we really want them to appeal to kids of today, they need to look like superheroes or action figures," Bevington said.
Any decision regarding the appearance of the Sea Monkeys must be vetted by Harold von Braunhut. The 75-year-old inventor currently lives on a nature preserve in Bryans Road, Md., and drives a red Corvette. "Harold," as he is known at Educational Insights, is notoriously protective of his patented Sea Monkeys. ExploraToy Vice President George C. Atamian says Von Braunhut once refused to do business with a company desiring to make Sea Monkey refrigerator magnets after he discovered risque magnets in its catalog.
Atamian, a round-faced scientist, met Von Braunhut via phone in 1990, when he called to congratulate Atamian on an underwater microscope he'd invented. A few days later, some Sea Monkeys arrived in the mail. Atamian didn't know what they were. "When people were reading comic books, I was in the Marine Corps," he says. When he opened the boxes, he thought they were junk. But Atamian eventually came around, and in 1995, he brought Von Braunhut to ExploraToy.