Instant holiday: Just add air

Tacky trumps traditional

The next big - as in 6 feet tall - thing is inflatable plastic decorations

December 22, 2006|By Arin Gencer | Arin Gencer,SUN REPORTER

Amid the tastefully twinkling lights, the sparkling tinsel and the glowing candles that decorate homes for the holidays, there is plastic.

This year, lots of plastic.

There are giant inflatable snow globes showcasing Santa or Mickey and Minnie Mouse, snow swirling around them. There is Santa on a motorcycle and Tigger clad in a scarf and snowmen in an igloo.

"When you want something more than the traditional lawn decor, it's time to try a 6-foot-tall Airblown Inflatable SnowGlobe," says a video on the Web site of Texas-based Gemmy Industries, one of the masterminds behind inflatable holiday decorations.

Though not new, the giant inflatables seem to be everywhere this season.

Retailers such as Kmart, Target and Home Depot carry an array of globes and other Christmas characters that can range from $20 to more than $200.

The plastic decorations go beyond the traditional snowmen, Santas and manger scenes.

For the Herions in Westminster, a giant Winnie the Pooh toting a stocking and a snowman family are new additions to a yard display that has been a tradition for years.

"It's more for the fun of it," said Andy Herion, whose parents, Joan and Ron, painstakingly decorate their lawn, backyard and roof for holidays year-round. Besides, he said, "they're easy to do."

That convenience is probably the main reason consumers are buying, said Peter Noble, a professor at Southern Methodist University's Temerlin Advertising Institute. Hanging lights requires effort and time, but with inflatables, people "can be done with it in five to 10 minutes," Noble said.

In more traditional and exclusive communities - such as historic Annapolis and Baltimore County's Stoneleigh and Hampton community - there might be no official objection to blow-up Santas and snowmen, but associations in those areas said few inflatables have appeared.

"I can't recall seeing a single one in the historic district [of Annapolis]," said Greg Stiverson, president of the Historic Annapolis Foundation.

The governor's mansion, which has a large inflatable snowman and globes with Santa's express train and snow swirling around snowmen, appears to be the exception, said Derek Fink, spokesman for first lady Kendel Ehrlich.

In the Hampton community in Baltimore County, people have at times called Anna Von Lunz, chairwoman of the architectural review committee, asking whether there is a "rule against being tacky," Von Lunz said.

A community covenant that dates from its early years bans such things as pig barns and tanning, but the float-like figures receive no special mention in the text, she said.

Elsewhere in Baltimore County, Lawrence Swoboda, president of Rodgers Forge Community Inc., said the inflatables are not forever. "You can see them, and you have to chuckle," he said.

"Whatever ornaments or decorations people put up, they're going to be coming down in a short time anyway," Swoboda said. "Why not have a little fun with the holiday?"

The professionals seem to agree.

"They're a little bit tacky," said Bobby Cooper, president of the American Holiday Decorators Association. "But I think it's mainly for the kids."

They're also very user-friendly, he said.

"Anybody can buy one, anybody can plug it in and blow it up and have an immediate Christmas decoration," Cooper said.

Deborah Vance, a McDaniel College communications professor, said she is surprised at how many people have decided bigger and blown-up are better.

"I don't know what the appeal is," Vance said. "People think they look childlike and fun, but ... there's nothing really magical about them."

Vance said the globes could reflect people's connection with a mass-produced world and the desire to create snowmen when there is no snow - or little desire to put effort into making one out of the real thing.

"It's instantaneous," Vance added. "It requires no effort. All you have to do is blow it up and put it there."

Inflatables have caught the eye of vandals and seem as subject to abuse as are other outdoor Christmas decorations. An Ohio man recently caught two men on videotape, stabbing his inflatable snowman, according to the sheriff's office in Hamilton County.

The ballooning decor has floated into other seasons.

Members of the official Gemmy Airblown Collectors Club proudly post photos of myriad airy decor: a large teddy bear holding a heart and an "I Love You" banner for Valentine's Day; a leprechaun balanced on a pot of gold for St. Patrick's Day; a menagerie of pink bunnies and yellow ducklings for Easter; a giant, top-hat-wearing turkey for Thanksgiving.

While Noble, the Southern Methodist University professor, said he could appreciate taking the kids to see the giant decorations, "I personally would not buy or use or display one. ... I think they're tacky."

He predicted their novelty would likely wear off.

But for Herion, it is simply a question of what you like. His mother, for example, draws the line at the snow globes, he said, which she finds harder to appreciate from afar.

"Let them say what they want to say," Herion said of critics who deem the inflatables gaudy.

"It doesn't hurt anybody. ... Everybody considers something tacky."

arin.gencer@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Tyrone Richardson contributed to this article.

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