Philadelphia Inquirer

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From the Philadelphia Inquirer, April 22, 2008:

Selling the stuff of politics

Barack buttons, Hillary hoodies. As Pennsylvanians go to the polls today, there's no shortage of goods proclaiming a preference. By Elizabeth Wellington

Sue Slocum doesn't care whether you cast your vote today for Barack Obama or Hillary Rodham Clinton.

As long as their supporters continue to wear their passion on their sleeves - and everywhere else.

There's money in politics, as if we didn't know.

Since February, Slocum has been selling partisan merchandise in her Doylestown shop, Michelle's Hallmark.

"People wanted to express themselves and I didn't want an election season to go by without having these items in my store," said the 40ish Slocum.

Thanks to technology that allows vendors to custom-make anything overnight, it's all about merchandise this campaign. Everything from laptops to bags to onesies. Politics brings out passion and creativity in designers and retailers.

Slocum's biggest sellers are cuddly teddy bears sporting hoodies that read "I Want [Barack, Hillary or, yes, McCain]." Of course, she also offers the standard mugs, buttons and refrigerator magnets that play to the candidates and their parties. Such as her 12-ounce mugs printed with "Friends Don't Let Friends Vote Republican" or "Friends Don't Let Friends Vote Democrat."

But today is all about the Pennsylvania primary, which raises the question: Which candidate does she support?

"My preference will not be known," Slocum answers slyly.

OK, which candidate's items are selling the most? You know, the winner.

"Everything is selling pretty much equally," she says.

So politic.

Both campaigns boast more than 100 items in their online stores, which have been up and running since last spring, with 100 percent of their sales going to the campaigns. At least there's one thing they agree on: The biggest seller so far this year has been the fleece jacket.

And that online sales mean big money.

Meaghan Burdick, director of the Obama campaign's direct marketing, said more than $5 million had been raised from the online store. Those sales include the iconic 24-by-36-inch Shepard Fairey print of Obama's image, accented with red shadows over the word Change, which is featured on invitations and T-shirts. A large version can be seen at bus stops in the city.

Brendan Gilfillan, press secretary for the Clinton campaign in Philadelphia, would not say how much was raised from merchandise sales, but noted that "a big chunk" of the $20 million the campaign raised in the last month came from the online store.

But if you're looking for attitude and satire, eBay or prevails.

Just two days after Obama uttered "bitter," users of, a California-based Web site whose 6.5 million users upload and sell their own designs, posted a bevy of baseball caps, tank tops and other items with sayings like "Not Bitter, Better: Hillary 08" and, countering that, "Bitter Voters for Obama."

In the last two weeks, Seattle-based graphic designer William Fanaras has seen a jump in purchases from Pennsylvania buyers at his CafePress-based store,

Fanaras, 42, started selling on CafePress three years ago with anti-Bush merchandise. These days, the self-described political junkie sells both pro-Hillary and pro-Obama goods.

"I like to keep up with things that are happening in the news," Fanaras said. "And because of the immediacy, I can come up with something clever and put it up almost immediately."

Others use their merchandise to make very clear political statements.

In the streets of Philadelphia, you're likely to see people who are strong supporters of Obama selling T's inches from the pocketbook of the moment.

Baba Yatahma, 66, screenprints images of Obama on shirts and sells them in front of the SEPTA station at 15th and Market. Yatahma also has a stand in Camden.

On a recent sunny afternoon, Yatahma wore a taxi-cab-yellow long-sleeved T-shirt with Obama in the middle of an image of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy. He sells the shirts for $15 to $25.

"The biggest media on Earth is T-shirts," said the open-air vendor. "People can see them from way down the street. They are powerful. I'm hoping it triggers thoughts."

The Clinton campaign was out in force selling T-shirts at Mayor Nutter's city cleanup a few weekends ago.

Until the 1890s, the only people who participated in political campaigns were the elite supporters on either side. There weren't enough independents to make a difference, said Richard Jensen, a retired history professor at the University of Illinois.

Then in 1892, campaigns began producing buttons in an effort to show that a potential voter had chosen a side in the presidential contest between Grover Cleveland and Benjamin Harrison.

The idea for America's first political fashion statement was offered by none other than Philadelphia department store owner and master merchandiser John Wanamaker.

"Men, it was only men who wore the half-inch buttons then, wore them at work and chatted up their favorite candidate to their coworkers," Jensen said. "They were a form of advertisement and they let people get involved in the campaign, hands on."

From then on, merchandising has evolved with technology. T-shirts became important vehicles to get out the youth vote starting in the 1960s. Today the Internet, combined with our ability to quickly get slogans screenprinted, allows us to mass-produce anything at a moment's notice.

"Fashion can leave a mark for real social change," said Natalie Weathers, associate professor of fashion industry management at Philadelphia University.

"People are constantly using and inverting fashion to make statements about their beliefs, their identity, their politics and their aspirational status."

And in today's climate those messages are much louder visually and more important - especially with young voters.

"The more fashionable items out there means there are more ways for people to become involved in a process that has historically disenfranchised them," said David Morrison, director of King of Prussia's Twenty-Something Inc.

"We are not standing around waiting like wallflowers, but wearing our passion."