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Morphin merchandise machine!

And you thought your kids had every imaginable Power Ranger product known to mankind. The lunch box. The backpack. T-shirts, pajamas. If it had the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers on it, you bought it.

Well guess what folks, there's more coming.

Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie debuts today. And don't think you're going to get off just by taking Junior to the movie and springing for popcorn. No, no. You're in for much, much more.

The movie will spawn a whole new wave of products from the Power Rangers' aaaawesome marketing machine.

Just look at its track record.

Bandai America, the Cerritos, Calif.-based company that makes the action figures, shipped 10 times more toys this past holiday season than the year before. This year, Bandai expects sales to top $400-million.

The movie will help. It is a masterpiece of marketing.

You can thank Steve Ross for that. Or if you're a parent, maybe you won't want to thank him. Actually, he's probably your worst nightmare.

He carries the hefty title of . . . senior vice president of worldwide feature film and video promotions for Twentieth Century Fox Licensing and Merchandising. You might say his job is to go through your kid to get to your purse.

He's spending a ton of money to do it. He has helped coordinate a $200-million multimedia campaign that included signing up McDonald's Corp., 7-Up, Kraft Foods Jell-O, Choice Hotels International and Discovery Zone as official sponsors of the movie.

"There is a very fine line between annoyance and overexposure," said Ross. "We could have signed 10 more companies, but it's not a thing of volume. It's about finding the right mix."

Ross wants to hit you everywhere you look. When you go shopping, you'll find the Power in the supermarket aisle. When you're done running the chores, and the kids are screaming for food, you'll bump into the Rangers at McDonald's. Later, when you bring the little angels to Discovery Zone, guess who's there: the Power Rangers.

There's no escaping. You might as well just empty your wallet now and be done with it.

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By all rights, the Power Rangers' star should be fading. They should have hit their peak, and the kids should have turned to the next craze.

The fact that the Power Rangers are still saving the day is due, in no small part, to marketing savvy.

But before you can talk about marketing and staying power, you've got to know your Zords from your Zedd. (Zords give our heroes extra fighting power in their battles with their arch-enemy, Lord Zedd).

Based on a 1970s Japanese show called Go Renjaa or Five Rangers, the revamped, Americanized Power Rangers television program debuted in the states in the fall of 1993. It features high school kids (goody-two-shoes who always choose the morally correct thing to do) who "morph" into superhumans and save the world from evil.

The awesome success of these super heroes built a gold mine in the action-figure business. So much gold, in fact, that there are whispers of conspiracy.

The theory goes like this: Some folks figured the masters of marketing had outdone themselves. They built up demand but kept the supply low. Then when parents were enlisting grandparents to search everywhere to find the Blue Ranger or the Yellow Ranger that Junior just had to have, the company flooded the market.

But the marketing gurus at Bandai say the theory is hogwash.

Trish Stewart recalls the New York Toy Fair in February 1993, when she barely could give the toys away.

Stewart, the marketing director of Bandai America, said she really couldn't blame toy buyers back then for not knowing that the Power Rangers were going to be the next big hit. At least 40 other manufacturers were saying the same thing about their toys.

"Given the lukewarm response at the show, we really made far more toys than we should have," said Stewart. "We took a huge risk."

It paid off. More than they anticipated. Much more.

By October 1993, people were banging on the doors of every toy shop trying to find Power Ranger action figures. By the holiday shopping season, there seemed to be no toys left.

That's when the conspiracy theory surfaced.

"I hate to say it, but people are always looking for someone to blame," said Stewart. "They couldn't accept that the demand was just astonishingly high and that we didn't expect this."

The demand grew so fast that even though the company added 11 more factories in China, Thailand, Mexico, Japan and Hong Kong, it took until Christmas of 1994 before Bandai thought it was meeting the childrens' demands.

Now that it's meeting demand, the challenge is to sustain it. Bandai doesn't want to do a re-run of Barney, an overnight sensation, then an old purple fad. So here comes the movie to save the day.

The movie features high-tech special effects, voice-overs that match the movement of the actors' lips, and new characters, all designed to make children scream, "Buy me. Pleeeeeeease."

Will it work?

"People have pounded on the doors for them in the past," said Carol Fuller, corporate spokeswoman at Passaic, N.J.-based Toys 'R Us. "So we're expecting that with this new movie, for people to start pounding all over again."

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These super heroes aren't just battling tales of conspiracy, they're fighting the image that, well, they're violent.

Take 2-year-old Austin Renforth. He loves to wear his blue Power Ranger outfit, and he can tell you who's who, but his mom won't let him watch the show anymore.

"Austin likes to sword you," said his mother, Susan Renforth of St. Petersburg. "He starts swording you when he sees the show."

Austin is not alone. Nursery schools, individual class teachers and church affiliations across the country have banned airing the show on their time. Many child-care facilities won't let kids don any Power Rangers paraphernalia.

"We ban anything that deals with super heroes," said Holly Carlson, director of Lutheran Church of the Cross Day School in St. Petersburg. "We just saw our preschoolers getting very aggressive when they were playing and decided we needed to do something about it."

That means no backpacks, lunch boxes or even Halloween costumes with Power Rangers on them at school.

Still, it doesn't mean these kids don't have all of these toys. There are plenty of young ones out there driving this money machine.

Stewart said she expects Bandai America's Power Ranger sales to increase from $330-million last year to $400-million this year because of new products and renewed interest spurred by the movie.

Okay, okay. But two other big summer hits: Walt Disney Pictures' Pocahontas and Warner Bros.' Batman Forever are competing for the precious six-second attention span of youngsters. Their products have flooded the market too. Who's to say the Power Rangers will triumph?

Not everyone.

"From what I've heard from all the licensees and retailers that I've talked to, they are expecting the demand to fall off, so they're not stocking as much in their stores," said Karen Raugust, executive editor of the Licensing Letter in Brooklyn, N.Y., which tracks product licensing.

It's a vicious circle. Retailers, afraid of getting stuck with yesterday's hit, are cautious about how much they stock on their shelves. But if the movie spurs Junior to pester mom and dad to buy the latest action figure, and mom and dad pester the stores, the product will prosper.

"The movie should pump up the product," said Raugust. "Now what happens after that depends upon what they do to keep the property fresh."

They'll introduce more characters.

"We've got to make new toys," said Stewart. "You can't just rely on a constant new crop of 5-year-olds who want the old toys."

Sorry mom and dad. More Ranger stuff. New Ranger stuff. Must-have Ranger stuff, coming to a store near you.

_ Times researcher Barbara Hijek contributed to this report.

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