Fans Flock to Celebrity Ducks

Rub-a-dub-dub, Babe Ruth's in your tub.

As are Charlie Chaplin, Carmen Miranda and Allen Iverson. At least in duck form.

These floatable notables are the faces on the latest craze in oddball promotions: rubber ducks with celebrity faces.

"You're starting to see them popping up pretty much everywhere," said Robert Tuchman, CEO of T.S.E. Sports and Entertainment, which specializes in sports merchandising. "You're starting to see them handed out at concerts, and you'll start seeing them handed out by every single baseball and basketball team. They're going to be at the level bobbleheads achieved maybe a year ago."

Which is to say, celebrity ducks are going to be huge, the staples of giveaway days at stadiums throughout the country.

"People are getting into fights at games to get at them," Tuchman said. "It's pretty much going to be a part of the general culture in the terms of Pokemon."

The frenzy for the faux-feathered baubles began Jan. 11, when the Philadelphia 76ers basketball team rolled out its newest giveaway, a variation on a little-known line of rubber ducks with the features of Uncle Sam or Betty Boop. The hoopster version was a heavily muscled mutation of court star Iverson, complete with tattooed biceps, detailed cornrows and a sparse moustache over his yellow beak.

Yet when his company hatched the idea five years ago, the president of Celebriducks had no idea rubber ducks might ever take flight.

"You would think it couldn't work as a concept — when we saw the first drawings, we just knew it couldn't work," said Celebriducks President Craig Wolf.

Even with years of celebrity-duck experience under his belt in a little sideline to his non-duck merchandising company, Wolf didn't know if it would work in the arena of sports paraphernalia.

"We weren't that tuned into the sports market with the bobbleheads and all. We spent years futzing around making the wrong kind of duck," he said. "Then the 76ers hit."

And hit big. It was a matter of days before celebrity rubber ducks became national news, and sports franchises were flocking to Wolf's nest.

"I think we are literally speaking to every team in the NBA and Major League Baseball right now," he said. "On the side, all these corporations have started calling us about doing ducks of their CEOs or corporate mascots. …We're just trying to keep up at this point."

Even movie and television stars have quietly contacted Wolf’s Marin County, Calif.-based company, asking for details on how they, too, can be transformed into squeaking vinyl bath toys.

The appeal to the public isn't a mystery to Tuchman, who said his New York-based company has also been drowning in calls for the waterfowl mock-ups.

"Everyone wants to be close to their celebrities," he said. "I wouldn't put one in my bathtub, but having that love of the celebrity and showing it in a goofy but fun way is something that people take a liking to."

In all of last year, Celebriducks sold between 10,000 and 15,000 ducks from James Brown to The Three Stooges, all designed by Wolf’s 28-year-old daughter Rebecca. This year, the company projects that it will sell about 400,000 ducks, including a Mr. T duck, a Rocky Horror Picture Show duck and countless sports figures, including a different version of the Iverson duck. And all will have the defining features of a good rubber duck, Wolf said.

"If you're going to do a duck, you should be able to literally toss if off a bridge and it'll pop up upright and not float upside down," he said. "Also, to me, ducks squeak."

These may be the halcyon days of the celebrity duck, but its promotional predecessors like the bobbleheads know that after the first flurry of popularity, it's easy for a gimmicky giveaway to become an endangered species. But Wolf isn't worried.

"What'll keep it going is the fact that the rubber duck didn't just come out of nowhere — it's an American icon," he said. "Lots and lots of people had ducks growing up as a kid; it's part of growing up in the culture. We're not creating a new product like the pet rock with no context. We definitely have a niche. People like rubber ducks."

Even Tuchman admitted that he'd violate his no-rubber-ducks-in-his-bath dictum under the right circumstances.

"If they had a Pamela Anderson duck, that would be kind of nice," he said.