The Strange Story Behind The AirDancers

“Advertising is based on one thing, happiness. And you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car.” —Don Draper, Mad Men

In A Nutshell

Ever wonder who invented the AirDancer? You know, that floppy tube guy who spends his time dancing in front of used car lots. Well, the story actually involves two respected artists, the Summer Olympics, and possibly a little bit of betrayal, depending whose side you’re on.

The Whole Bushel

Some people call them AirDancers. Others call them tube men or fly guys. Whatever their name, chances are good you’ve seen them waving and dancing outside furniture stores, gas station, or used car lots. With their floppy bodies and long, loosey-goosey arms, they’re kind of hard to ignore.

Whether you think they’re cute or tacky, you’ve got to admit they’re an incredibly unique marketing tool. But who invented the AirDancer? What’s his origin story? Well, the tube guy was the brain child of Peter Minshall, a Trinidadian “mas-man.” A “mas-man” is someone who designs Carnival art in Trinidad and Tobago, and Minshall specialized in creating gigantic puppets that paraded down the street to calypso music.

Minshall’s puppets were so impressive they caught the attention of the Olympics planning committee. They wanted the artist to help design the 1996 Atlanta Games ceremonies, and that’s when Minshall hit on the idea of using air tubes. Add some arms and legs, and hook those bad boys to an air source, and voila, you’ve got a dancing man, gliding around just like the folks back home in Trinidad and Tobago.

Only Minshall couldn’t build the “tall boys” (his preferred term) on his own so he turned to a Los Angeles–based artist named Doron Gazit. Originally from Israel, Gazit was something of a specialist when it came to inflatables. When he was younger, Gazit sold balloon animals in Jerusalem, and the man still carries spare balloons in his pocket. You never know when might need one.

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In addition to making little elephants and giraffes, Gazit used air tubes to create works of art, hanging the tubes in trees, strewing them across the desert, and even tossing them into the Dead Sea. In other words, he was the perfect man for the job. Soon, Gazit had created gigantic “fly guys” (his preferred term) who made their grand appearance at the closing ceremonies of the ’96 Games. These tube men were 20 meters (60 ft) tall, complete with actual heads and actual legs, smoothly swaying back and forth for all the world to see.

And this is where the story gets a little complicated. In 2001, Gazit patented the tube men . . . without checking with Minshall. Gazit’s reasoning goes that he’s the fellow who actually built the “fly guys.” Minshall just came up with the idea. Plus, other companies were already starting to rip off his design so he had to act fast. It kind of makes sense, but Minshall feels Gazit should’ve asked him first. After all, he’s the one who dreamed up the tube men.

Either way, it seems the era of the inflatables is coming to an end. Quite a few cities have banned tube men, claiming they “adversely affect the aesthetic environment.” That’s just legalese for “eyesore.” And Doron Gazit couldn’t agree more. Even though he profits off these guys by licensing his patent to various companies, he thinks these puny little tube men are “very ugly and very unattractive.” As for Minshall, well, he has a different opinion. Whenever he sees one of his tall boys dancing away on a corner, it makes him feel kind of proud.

Show Me The Proof

Featured photo credit: Frank Vincentz
99% Invisible: Inflatable Men
Medium: Biography of an Inflatable Tube Guy