Political Merchandise Extends Far Beyond Official Campaigns

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Of the estimated $2.5 billion that Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, and the Super-PACs supporting them will pump into the 2012 presidential campaign, a tiny sliver will go toward the manufacturing of campaign merchandise—the signs you put in your yard, bumper stickers you attach to your car, and T-shirts you smugly wear to work on election day. So far during this campaign, Obama has spent $6.7 million on the creation of merchandise, while Romney has spent $1.6 million, according to USA Today. That’s a paltry amount in the world of political spending, but it doesn’t tell the whole story of campaign gear.

Outside of the official campaign stores filled with stately buttons and clean, professional T-shirts, there’s an entire online netherworld of unauthorized political merchandise, which can be twice as entertaining as the official stuff and just as effective in marketing’s ultimate goal—convincing consumers to consider a product (in this case, the President of the United States).

Jim Gamble, for instance, runs Right Wing Stuff, a virtual storefront for conservative merchandise. He operates through CafePress, an online retailer that allows people to create custom designs for T-shirts, bumper stickers, and other items and sell them for profit. CafePress handles the actual manufacturing and distribution of the products, then takes a cut of the revenue. Gamble is one of CafePress’s top vendors, and his merchandise generates hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue each year. Running the online store is now his full-time job.

“I live in the Bay Area, so I’ve seen plenty of the liberal take on politics,” says Gamble, who started his online store in 2003 with designs supporting the Iraq War. “I drive behind a lot of cars with liberal bumper stickers on them. Just in traffic when I was commuting to a job, I’d try to twist those around and make the conservative equivalent of it.”

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Now Right Wing Stuff boasts hundreds of different political designs ranging from traditional Romney-Ryan 2012 gear similar in style to what’s for sale from Romney’s official campaign to some vehemently anti-Obama products.

According to Gamble, snark sells, especially since the Tea Party rose to prominence in 2009. An all-time top seller is the “Miss Me Yet?” design featuring a smirking George W. Bush, which gained national attention when it appeared on a billboard around the same time Gamble thought of the slogan. “There is a market for conservative, patriotic gear,” Gamble says, “but I think our speciality is lampooning the left and sticking it to them that way through slogans and artwork.”

Gamble’s store isn’t the only one profiting from the negative tenor of modern politics. Half of the products sold on CafePress featuring Barack Obama criticize the president, compared to only 10% during the 2008 campaign. There’s also more anti-Romney merchandise compared to anti-McCain gear four  years ago.

In addition to “anti” designs, merchandise is increasingly tied to the lightning-fast news cycle. “If there is a news event, there will be T-shirts out there within 10 minutes of someone saying something,” says Marc Zapchenk, an online designer who sells liberal merchandise through CafePress. When Mitt Romney faced criticism early in the campaign season for strapping his dog to the roof his car on a family vacation, Zapchenk flipped the controversy into a design supporting Obama. He says he was shocked at how well the design sold. The market can be fickle, though. When Zapchenk tried to capitalize on Romney’s infamous “47%” comments a few weeks ago, consumers didn’t bite.

All this gear floating around can have an impact on the way people view the candidates, says Clarke Caywood, a marketing professor at Northwestern University. “The cost of these kind of messages or communication channels is insignificant compared to TV advertising, but the potential for individual influence can be much, much greater,” he says. “People are likely to trust someone like them. So if they see a yard sign or a bumper sticker on a neighbor’s car…that’s when these kind of promotional items are actually quite powerful.”

The best example of a powerful piece of merchandise might be the Obama “Hope” poster from the 2008 election. The design, created by street artist Shepard Fairey, had an underground aesthetic, though it was actually commissioned by the Obama campaign. Fairey was already a politically active designer, crafting several unauthorized political designs that fell firmly in the “anti-Bush” category. His Obama image ended up on hundreds of thousands of T-shirts and stickers, and original prints of the poster are now worth thousands of dollars. Of course, unauthorized knockoffs now abound cross the Internet.

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So far this cycle, merchandise sales have not reached the heights of campaigns past, when Obama was extremely popular and Sarah Palin was rattling off marketable one-liners. Zapchenk sold over $125,000 worth of Obama gear tin 2008, but he’s on track to move less than half that amount this year. Gamble says his sales peaked when the Tea Party excitement reached its fever pitch around the 2010 midterm elections.

Still, both plan to keep their eye on the debates and the news headlines in search of new design ideas. There’s no telling where the next “Hope” poster might emerge. “I would be super thrilled if I could ever do something that had that level of impact,” Zapchenk says. “That is the gold standard.”

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