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License to Cheese


By Brendan I. Koerner

Back when I was yea-high as a grasshopper, I lusted after the Sports Illustrated football phone. All y'all who came of age during the Iran-Contra Affair know what I'm talking about—in exchange for subscribing to America's favorite sports magazine, the good folks at Time Inc. would send you a corded phone shaped like a lump of pigskin. The commercials that trumpeted this promotion were something to behold, as one meathead called another and crowed something to the effect of, "Dude, guess what? I'm talking on a freakin' football!"

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Those halcyon days are long since past, but cheesy phones molded to resemble quasi-athletic gear remain. We have the fine, upstanding folks at KNG America to thank for this blessing; while you're muddling about your pleasant-yet-meaningless life, they're figuring out new and innovative ways to take licenses from NASCAR, the NFL, and Harley Davidson, and use 'em as leaping-off points to create low-end products. Is "genius" too strong a word for the KNG crew? Absolutely, but that doesn't mean we all can't wallow in the glory of Surfing Goofy remote controls and NASCAR clock radios for a little while. After the jump, a few of KNG's truly outstanding experiments in licensed cheese. PLUS: The glory that is NavyStar!

In spiritual terms, the KNG product most similar to the SI football phone of yore is the NFL paper shredder, fashioned to resemble a 100-yard field (or "pitch," to you Euros in the audience). At just $19.99, it's truly a low-end product, though you get what you pay for in terms of shredding volume—the maximum per run is just five to six sheets, which means this probably isn't right for your next Enron-sized cover-up job. Also, it doesn't come with a dedicated receptacle—you have to fit it over a pre-existing wastebasket, using the handy adjustable arms. The upside is that it's got a reverse button, so no worries about getting your tie jammed in there and being slowly strangled. Oh, and did I mention that it looks like a football field? If that doesn't impress the curvy co-worker two cubicles over—the one who you really, really want to take to Comic-Con 2006—nothing will.

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Of course, KNG's specialty is still the molded plastic, corded phone that, um, looks like something. Lots of Disney-themed items in this category, but I lean more towards the NASCAR series, especially the one featuring Tony Stewart's #20 (pictured at the post's top). You pay a slight premium over similarly featured Uniden models&mdashlet's call it 50 percent—but that's how KNG affords the license, right? And, hey, per the hype sheet, it features a redial button. What more could you want for $29.99? (Of course, if you're a richy-rich type, you can fork over an extra Jackson and plump for the Michael Jordan Animated Phone. But this column's called Low End Theory, not Millionaire's Corner, dig?)

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Okay, okay, so I hear you—you're not a sports fan. How about motorcycles? KNG also has the Harley-Davidson license, and spares no effort in dreaming up a zillion craptacular products upon which to slap the iconic company's logo. The most Coby-like of these offerings is the Harley-Davidson Slim CD Player, which for all intents and purposes looks like something you'd ordinarily buy at Discount Bob's. Except, of course, for the orange-and-black Harley-Davidson color scheme, which blends in nicely with what the hype sheet terms a "attractive lightweight aluminum case." It also offers "bass boost," which frequent readers of this space will recognize as one of my favorite marketing euphemisms for "bad, buzzy sound."

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None of these products are meant to wow gearheads, of course. As in the human mating ritual, looks count for more than we care to admit, and consumers are doubtless drawn by the prospect of owning a car-shaped phone in lieu of a unit with better specs. Truth be told, if KNG came out with a cordless version of the old SI football phone, I'd buy one in a heartbeat—provided, of course, that the price tag didn't exceed, say, $25. Have another cheesy licensed item that you lust after, perhaps to your personal chagrin? Please, do tell.

Y'KNOW, FOR KIDS: I've previously raved about how lucky kids are today, given the vast array of low-end gizmos geared toward the young'uns. Color me even more jealous now that I've encountered NavyStar, a toy brand that's straight out of Hong Kong (via Grand Rapids, Michigan). My beloved Gem Gem Gem discount store on 125th Street stock NavyStar merch like crazy; my favorite, by far, is the $12.99 Super Mini Hi-Fi, which actually looks more powerful than some Coby boomboxes. They've also apparently got a kid's laser disc player out, though I've yet to come across it. Very cool, but not for kid's possessed of more aggressive nature's—NavyStar favors a variety of plastic that's just one degree less brittle than a Krackel.

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for both The New York Times and Slate. His Low End Theory column appears every Thursday on Gizmodo.

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