Marketing democracy & punning on politics

This Election season, consumers and supporters are wearing their hearts—and their political views—on their sleeves

The Obama/Biden and McCain/Palin merchandise runs the gamut from serious to saucy, trucker hats to T-shirts.
The Obama/Biden and McCain/Palin merchandise runs the gamut from serious to saucy, trucker hats to T-shirts.

Recently, there has been much controversy over Sarah Palin’s reported $150,000 clothing expenditure, but how much would you spend on an “I can see Russia from my house!” Palin-themed T-shirt?

Although images of celebrities are splashed across T-shirts and hoodies fairly often, in recent years the names and images of political figures have moved off our lawns and onto our clothing.

Elizabeth Hasselbeck of TV’s The View recently caused a sensation when she wore a self-made “Great AmeriMcCain Hero” shirt during a taping of the show earlier this month. The incident, in which Hasselbeck claimed she would “be quiet and let the shirt speak for [her],” has been nicknamed “Shirtgate 2008” by fans of The View.

But showing your support for a candidate with a T-shirt isn’t a new concept. Supporters of Thomas Dewey wore “Dew It for Dewey” shirts in 1948 when he ran against incumbent Harry S. Truman.

Jonathan Rose, an associate professor in the politics department at Queen’s, said the shirts were just one facet of a shift in the focus of political campaigns.

“What we’re seeing is a blurring between politics and commercial advertising,” he said. “I think the most recent example would be Molson’s ‘I am Canadian’ campaign—it was not about beer but rather about patriotism.

“Around the same time, the government of Canada was running an ad campaign centered on Canada’s 125th anniversary, and the style and the arguments in the government ads were virtually identical to the Molson ads. What we’re seeing is the bigger phenomenon of the blurring between commercial advertising and political advertising. Political ads are starting to use the language of popular advertising in their messages and they’re doing so because it resonates.”

Downtown Kingston has been affected by these campaigns as well—Urban Outfitters has begun selling t-shirts emblazoned with images of Barack Obama and messages such as “Vote Democrat 2008,” while Heel Boy, a shoe retailer, also carries Obama shirts.

Why no sartorial love for the Republican Party? Rose said it’s likely to do with Obama’s iconic status, comparing him to another famous figurative and literal icon.

“I think the reality is that Obama shirts or Che Guevara shirts are just adjuncts to a certain kind of cool-ness. In some cases they symbolize a philosophical or ideological position, but often people wear these articles to associate themselves with an ideal. I saw a shirt once with a picture of Guevara on it that said, ‘I don’t know who this guy is’—people wear these shirts because they are associated with something that is cool.”

The American election, a hot topic since candidates came forward almost two years ago, has captured imaginations, hopes and wallets worldwide, something Rose said retailers were quick to realize.

“The stores aren’t really interested in the politics behind this stuff,” he said. “They’re interested in moving product.”

Although it might seem counter-intuitive or useless for Canadian stores to sell clothing promoting American politicians, Rose said the merchandise provided an opportunity to show support outside of the polling station.

“I think that although we can’t vote, an Obama shirt does represent solidarity with the Democrats in the States and about the important effect the American election will have for Canadians.

“In an international poll, Obama came out four to one against McCain. Canadians supported Obama 67 to 33 per cent. Canadians who wear that shirt are really doing two things: they’re trying to associate with a cool brand and they’re indicating their Democratic solidarity.” Although “Vote Democrat in 2008” and “Great AmeriMcCain Hero” are fairly straightforward messages, the most popular t-shirts are those with sarcastic or humorous intent., a “user-generated commerce” company located in California, offered over 2,000 Sarah Palin-themed items for sale within mere hours of her announcement as the GOP running mate. It currently stocks roughly 760,000 Palin-related products, including shirts, bags and coffee mugs depicting pit bulls wearing lipstick.

The site has roughly 1.5 million McCain products, and in keeping with Rose’s theory, over 2.5 million Obama products, with messages like “Party like a Barack Star,” a child-sized T-shirt reading, “My Mama’s for Obama” and the rather bizarre but well-meaning “Ninjas for Obama.”

Although Obama merchandise is outselling McCain merchandise and the gap in the polls continues to widen, it is impossible to know for sure who Americans will elect as their 44th president.

When it comes to results, researchers have suggested sales of Halloween masks bearing the images of political figures can be as or more accurate than advanced polling in determining the outcome of an election.

But Rose is skeptical.

“It’s hard to know whether you’re emulating or ridiculing someone by wearing a mask of their face.”

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