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Fisher-Price opens photo studio in Buffalo to invite more diversity for packaging, advertising

In this Jan. 14, 2015, photo, 21-month-old Noelle Roberts plays with Fisher-Price toys while "baby wrangler" Melanie Ruskin keeps her engaged and photographer Michael Mandolfo records the moment at a studio in Buffalo, N.Y.
Image Credit: AP Photo/Carolyn Thompson

BUFFALO, N.Y. - Fisher-Price has long eschewed "professional" models for its packaging, instead using the babies and toddlers parents trundle in to the toy maker's headquarters in the quaint western New York village of East Aurora.

And while there is no shortage of cute in the hamlet 20 miles southeast of Buffalo, with its old-school five-and-dime and vintage movie theatre along Main Street, the company recently began photographing children in a second studio, in Buffalo, to tap into the urban centre's more multi-cultural feel — and better reflect the faces in the 150 countries where Fisher-Price toys are sold.

"Everything that we do for Fisher-Price here goes everywhere, so all over the world, from packaging to websites to advertising," said Fisher-Price marketing executive Teresa Gonzalez Ruiz. "We need to make sure we have Hispanics, African-Americans, more Asian population."

"We've always done it. It's just a lot easier here," Gonzalez Ruiz said on a recent morning at the city studio inside a former industrial complex that has been converted for businesses. Fisher-Price plans to use the Buffalo studio for about 25 per cent of its 4,000 annual shoots.

With sunlight streaming through a wall of windows, 21-month-old Noelle Roberts rolled cars down a winding track as photographer Michael Mandolfo kneeled and lay on his stomach and snapped photos. "Baby wrangler" Melanie Ruskin played with Noelle, squealing and clapping to keep her engaged.

"She loves it," the toddler's mother, Nicole Roberts, said after the studio's team of stylists piled her curly hair into a top ponytail and picked out a pair of brightly striped leggings and a sweater for the shoot.

The pictures could end up on a box for the toy track, or in an ad.

Noelle, who earned $50 for the session, was recruited by Gonzalez Ruiz, who spotted the brown-eyed African-American toddler with her mother inside a Buffalo drug store.

"She said 'Oh, she's so cute! You have to bring her,'" Roberts said.

Fisher-Price also reaches out to hospital maternity wards, immigrant groups and urban churches in search of a rainbow of newborns to 5-year-olds. The company's internal marketers initially saw the need for more diversity, and it has raised the issue in the company's consciousness, Gonzalez Ruiz said.

"We're not looking for specifics," she said. "For us, it's just making sure that we don't leave anyone out of the picture, that everyone feels included."

The city studio is more accessible by public transportation or on foot, saving parents a drive to East Aurora, which is prone to hefty snow totals in winter.

"This is perfect," said Nicole Roberts, who lives on Buffalo's west side. "I love the location."

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