07/14/1986 at 01:00 AM EDT
They started to appear in rear windows of cars about a year ago, those little (5-by-5 inch) yellow signs announcing BABY ON BOARD! Now they seem ubiquitous. Inevitably, copycats cropped up: PLAYBOY ON BOARD, GRANDMA ON BOARD, BEACH BUM ON BOARD, PERVERT ON BOARD, HAIR STYLIST ON BOARD, you name it. Before long, rip-off artists were skipping the ON BOARD construction: CHILD CARRIES NO CASH; I STOP FOR STUDS; WHACKO AT WHEEL; EXPENSIVE BUT WORTH IT. The topper was a sign columnist Herb Caen saw on the streets of San Francisco that read EX-HUSBAND IN TRUNK. What's more, part of a necktie was hanging out of the trunk's closed hatch.
If imitation is indeed the sincerest form of flattery, one person who would just as soon not be complimented is Michael Lerner, 32, the brains behind the ON BOARD bonanza. A whiz kid businessman from Newton, Mass., Lerner made a healthy sum of money in real estate while in his 20s. In 1984 a friend named Tony Pintsopoulos approached him for advice on marketing the BABY signs concept. After six months of research Lerner sank $65,000 of his own money into the business. Today, Lerner claims Safety 1st, Inc. is grossing "in the multimillions of dollars" on the signs, which sell for about $2. Safety 1st has applied for a trademark registration but has yet to be granted one.
A bachelor with no baby on board his 1985 Mercedes, Lerner is not amused by the knockoffs. "We're in the business of child safety," he says. "It wasn't intended to create parodies. We saw the market for parodies before anyone else. But how could we do that? I could have set up another company, and nobody would know we were making them. But it would have been very unethical. It's a fad. How long are you going to want EX-WIFE IN TRUNK in your back window?"