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“Rubber Duck,” a giant inflatable sculpture by Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman, has delighted residents and visitors in cities around the world. Despite its universal appeal, the inflatable duck is controversial.
“Rubber Duck” was first showcased in Saint-Nazaire, France in 2007. Other rubber ducks were put on display in Brazil, Australia, New Zealand, Vietnam, Canada, and other countries in subsequent years. People came by the thousands to see them and take pictures.
Rubber ducks have been around since the end of the late 19th century. Shortly after rubber was introduced to the market, several people decided independently to fashion it into ducks. A variety of toys and hunting decoys were invented, but none had much commercial success. In 1949, Peter Ganine secured a patent for a rubber duck that squeaked, floated, stayed upright, and smiled. Millions were sold.
Ganine’s yellow rubber ducks became synonymous with childhood because they were associated with bathtubs. Primary colors, smiling faces, and baby animals induce feelings of happiness in people’s brains. They also became popular for the squeaky sounds they produced. The rubber ducks do not have any real political or cultural associations, but are rather a blank slate. People can add whatever meaning they want by decorating them or using them to symbolize other things.
Hofman relies on the size of his sculptures to make a statement. By making them so large, he makes humans seem smaller, which he hopes takes away people’s egos and helps them communicate better.
Some people dislike the ducks precisely because of their ubiquity and broad-based appeal. Critics say the ducks have nothing to do with the unique history or character of the many cities where they are displayed and that they are generic and feel like advertising.
Hofman’s rubber ducks are also controversial because he enforces copyright over all rubber ducks when his inflatables are on display and has been known to sue people for infringement and to take his ducks away. Critics say this deprives local businesspeople of revenue.