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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, January 1, 2010

A new wave of Obama kitsch


BY Greg Wiles
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

An ABC Stores buyer says these Obama dolls are popular with visitors from Japan. While Obama souvenirs are also a strong seller with Mainlanders, Waikk stores report sales of Obama memorabilia peaked earlier in the year.

RICHARD AMBO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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At Waikk's ubiquitous ABC Stores there are new dashboard dolls selling well, right up there alongside hula girls in grass skirts who rock to and fro when your car goes over bumps.

The new jiggling dolls are two dashboard figures of President Obama as only he can be seen in Hawai'i.

One doll is the commander in chief casually dressed in a blue shirt and cargo shorts, wearing a yellow plumeria lei. He appears to be singing while strumming a red, white and blue 'ukulele.

The other is of Obama as a beachboy.

He looks to be running along the ocean's edge in black boardshorts, carrying a retro single-fin surfboard under one arm and flashing a shaka sign with his right hand.

Both of the Obama dolls are made in China and shimmy when shaken.

"It's selling unusually well for something like that," said Miles Oda, a buyer for ABC Stores. The chain also sells a bobblehead version of Obama, looking slightly cheesy decked out in Island garb and flashing dual shakas.

"It's very strong with the Japanese (tourists). But it's also strong with the Mainland."

The dashboard dolls and O-bobblehead may be unusual among Obama memorabilia in Waikk, which appears to be on the downside of a sales peak around the 2008 election and inaugural in early 2009.

A check of stores at the International Marketplace in Waikk on New Year's Eve shows the presidential vacation hasn't spurred a jump in most "Obama-mobilia" merchandise. Many merchants queried said such products were hotter earlier last year, though they still get people coming in and seeking anything Obama.

At an ABC Store on Kuhio Avenue, Obama T-shirts commemorating his becoming the 44th U.S. president were located in the six-for-$20 bargain bin at the front of the store. A Crazy Shirts location on Kalkaua Avenue that last February reported its "Obama Surfs" T-shirt was a top seller doesn't carry an Obama design now.

It may be that retailers are discovering Obama-mobilia doesn't translate well as Hawai'i souvenirs, or that the right designs haven't been hit on.

Where selling a T-shirt commemorating his inauguration may work for street-vendors in Washington, D.C., it apparently doesn't work as a Hawai'i memento, even if Obama was born and spent many of his formative years here.

At the Magnetz store in the International Market Place, clerks reported Obama merchandise sells depending on the type of customer they get and could possibly do better if there were more designs. For now the offerings mainly include picture magnets of the president and first lady Michelle Obama.

"Customers sometimes ask for it," said Joseph Heaukulani, a retail specialist at the 88 Tees store on Kuhio Avenue, noting Japanese tourists in particular seem interested.

But he said interest was down from early last year when excitement about Obama's election and inaugural carried through to the cash register.

Obama recently was named the most admired man in the U.S. in a USA Today/Gallup poll. But his approval ratings slipped amid rising unemployment and a bruising battle over health care reform.

Rasmussen Reports' daily Presidential Tracking Poll yesterday found 46 percent of voters at least somewhat approved of Obama's performance. That was down from 61 percent at the time of his inauguration.

At the Butigroove store on Pi'ikoi Street, sales of Obama merchandise are also down from earlier. The store features about a dozen Obama T-shirts along with stickers, coffee mugs, and bags, all locally designed and made.

"We did the whole nine yards for Obama," said Keika Albarado, Butigroove sales manager.

"We were pretty much like the unofficial Obama merchandise headquarters."

He said the lower sales may be a result of the economy or less buzz about the Hawai'i-born president.

But he said the store is still doing well with the sales, including those it receives from its Internet site.

For those who are curious, the 4-inch high Obama dashboard dolls cost $5.99 at ABC Stores ($9.99 for the 6-inch models) and are distributed by 'Aiea-based KC Hawaii.

The Obama Aloha Bobblehead is distributed by DBI-Hawaii Inc. and retails for $16.99.