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Bobbleheads Shaking Up Industry

They go by many names - bobbers, nodders, bobble- or bobbing-head dolls. Look around at any collectibles show, and you're likely to see them. They depict cartoon characters, athletes, team mascots, Hollywood personalities and holiday figures. In fact, today, you can find bobbleheads bearing the image of just about anyone. Even yourself. The dolls have recently seen a marked rise in popularity, and are making serious headway in the promotional products industry as well.

Long History
Bobbleheads have been around since before the turn of the last century. They gained momentum in the 1950s, as various versions began popping up. In 1960, Major League Baseball got into the act.

A series of dolls for each team was sold at stadiums all over the country. The dolls were of papier-maché, and featured a small boy's face wearing a baseball cap. In 1961, to cash in on the great home run race, four players' caricatures - Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente - appeared as bobbleheads.

By the mid-'60s and 1970s, bobbleheads were representing the National and American Football Leagues, National Hockey League and National Basketball League as well as baseball. The same little-boy face was used, but the dolls were now ceramic.

Several nonsports character bobbleheads were also produced at the same time, including Dick Tracy, Elmer Fudd, Popeye, Porky Pig, The Beatles, Dr. Kildare, Ben Casey and Charley Weaver. Most were sold at retail as opposed to being used promotionally; the astronomical set-up charges and complex molding process precluded anyone but major corporations from even thinking about it.

Bobbleheads more or less faded away in the late '70s, only to show up in a new format in the late '90s

Cheaper, Better
Today, modern materials and techniques like plastic injection molding have brought the cost of custom bobbleheads down significantly.

"The turnaround is really fast now," says Jimmy Lam, president of GP Marketing International Ltd. "We can do them in seven to 10 days. We take a computer drawing and make a mold almost immediately. We can do the computer designs with just three pictures - front, sides and back. We put these into the computer, and it makes us a 3-D mold. We used to do it all by hand."

The reason for the dolls' popularity boom? They're small enough to display and truly resemble the people they're supposed to represent. Many businesses have picked up on a category that had previously been practically the sole domain of sports teams.

"People were looking for something new that's also an older idea," says O'Connell. "They're fun. People have them on their desks. Everybody likes them.

"Malcolm Alexander, president of Alexander Global Promotions, thinks the trend really got rolling in 2000. "There's a personality that develops within the characters you create," he says. "There's a lot of affinity between the collector and individual in sports, for instance. That flows over into corporate icons as well. It's a little retro. Collectors like them because they're usually a limited [edition]. They have a high-perceived value. They feed on themselves, so to speak. A good example is one collector who told me he was going to collect everything. Then he called back and told me he was limiting himself to baseball. Then he told me he was going to limit himself to baseball players from the past 10 years in the Northeast. It allows for that kind of specialization."

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