Kermit the Frog never counted on competition like this. Their names are Donatello, Michaelangelo, Raphael, and Leonardo, and in 1990 they became the most successful reptiles in all show biz. Their hit movie, last spring's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, was the culmination of one of the biggest marketing blitzes of the past decade. Posters, bedspreads, balloons, T-shirts, action figures, backpacks, breakfast cereals the big green teens had their lumpy faces plastered on some 600 products over the last few years, generating more than $1 billion in sales. They collected millions more this year by lending their likenesses to promotions for Burger King and Pizza Hut, and that was on top of the more than $130 million their film earned at the box office.
So what secret lurked behind their awesome reptilian success? ''They were hip,'' says Tony Marsiglia, president of Responsive Marketing Communications, which negotiated a number of Ninja Turtle promotions. ''They didn't take themselves too seriously, like a lot of other superheroes. Kids related to the Turtles 'cause the Turtles had personality.''
Of course, the Ninja Turtles weren't hatched yesterday. They appeared first as comic-book heroes in 1984, then in a syndicated TV cartoon series in 1988. But 1990 was the year they really came out of their shells. More than 300,000 kids joined their fan club (at $5 a pop), and tens of thousands turned out for their 40-city rock concert tour. A major cookie company put them on its boxes. Random House published five books about their adventures and a postcard volume called Greetings from the Sewer. The Turtles even cut their own album, with odes to such Turtlesque delights as skate-boarding and pizza.
And they sometimes caused controversy, just like real movie stars. Some critics contended their film was too violent, and there were charges of anti- Semitism: One of the Turtle toys, a puzzle that has since been recalled, had what appeared to be a swastika drawn on it. This year, the actor who gave voice to Donatello in the film pleaded guilty to drug charges (he is now on probation).
Even with all that, the tortoise team remained one of the year's most entertaining pop phenomenons. On the Chinese calendar, it may have been the year of the horse, but for millions of kids and not a few of their shell-shocked parents, it was the year of the turtle. And 1991 looks like another.