— Just 24 hours after John McCain introduced us to a "Joe the Plumber," a search for the blue-collar hero on CafePress.com — an online retailer of user-customized products — yielded more than 700 results. Americans were hawking teddy bears, trucker hats and camcorders decked out with slogans like “Joe the Plumber for President,” and “Spread the wealth around.”
And plumber-inspired paraphernalia is just the latest dizzying production of online political merchandise for the 2008 presidential campaign. You can buy a McCain Pez dispenser, Barack action figure, “Obamica” yarmulke, Palin pet chew-toy, Biden finger puppet, “Obama Rama” air freshener, "McCain-endorsed" condom, “Bark-Obama” dog tag, “Mavericks” beer, and even a busty Sarah Palin blowup doll.
If it’s a whiff of seniority you seek, spritz yourself with the John McCain fragrance. Available at Presidentialperfume.com, it’s “aged with experience, accentuated with nonpartisanship and military strength.”
Need a new ’do? Log on to Internationalwig.com to order your very own feathered “Michelle Obama wig” or, at Georgie Wigs, purchase a Sarah Palin style intended for Orthodox Jewish head-coverings.
Today's accessories, action figures and baby onesies are yesterday's buttons and bumper stickers.
According to a spokesman for CafePress, which boasts 6.5 million users, more than 20 percent of total sales are generated by election-related products. And whereas the last election marked mostly anti-Bush or pro-Bush products (Kerry was generally ignored), this year’s race focuses on the colorful cast of “SNL”-fodder, specifically Obama and Palin.
Before Palin’s acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, McCain’s campaign had barely captured 10 percent of CafePress election-related sales, whereas Obama boasted more than 50 percent. Now a search for Sarah Palin’s name brings up 31,000 results, compared to 44 for Sen. Joe Biden. There's everything from T-shirts portraying the Alaskan governor as Rosie the Riveter to eco-friendly tote bags emblazoned with the slogan "Real women hunt moose."
“The Obama-Biden ticket is about Obama; the McCain-Palin ticket is about Palin,” said Amy Maniatis, vice president of marketing for CafePress, which witnessed an overnight explosion of users uploading thousands of Palin-related products after the RNC. “Palin really helped energize McCain’s ticket." And, apparently, sales.
More than just business, my friends
The Alchemist’s Apprentice, an online beauty product line, recently started selling “Power Pink” Sarah Palin lipstick, donating $1 of each purchase to the McCain-Palin campaign. The Web site says the shimmery color might not compliment a pit bull, but it’s “the perfect shade of lipstick” for the famous hockey mom.
“We’d heard about the popularity of [Palin’s] shoes and glasses, but no one had come up with a lipstick yet,” said AlchemistsApprentice.com founder Pamela Cronan-Maddox, who says the fashionable governor represents her core values. “I’m inspired to see a woman who just may achieve an honor as high as becoming vice president of our country.
“If Palin becomes V.P., we might just look into a Power Pink blush to complete the set.”
With this outpouring of political creativity, some critics argue the ease of e-commerce puts too much emphasis on humor and stereotypes. “It shifts the focus from ‘real issues’ to the sort of sensationalist baloney that's proved a huge distraction this election,” said Dale Hrabi, deputy editor of Radar magazine. “It's not that different from the droning debate we all endured about the makeup practices of a pig.”
But Maniatas believes sites like CafePress work as an important platform for self-expression, a nonverbal way to get people talking. “Merchandise is starting the conversation. What better way, the day after a debate, than have voters discuss a T-shirt with the words ‘That one’?”
On weekends, you’ll find a 64-year-old Obama supporter in New York City's Union Square. In the ’60s, she marched beside Martin Luther King, Jr. to show her support for political change; now she sells tongue-in-cheek Sarah Palin paper dolls, mostly to women in their 50s who want to “really annoy someone” with the two-dimensional politician.
“It was a gimmick move,” said the designer, who declined to give her name because she works at a government agency. “I was just so resentful of [McCain’s] choice.”
The designer was inspired after writing to Republican Melanie Sabelhaus, of the U.S. Small Business Administration, to voice her disappointment that she was not selected as McCain’s running mate. Sabelhaus thanked her for being such a “doll.”
“The word stuck in my brain and that evening, with the help of a good gimlet, I conceived that Sarah Palin was more of a paper doll than a potential leader.”
In lieu of physically protesting, she hopes her dolls — which she sells to customers from Seattle to Hamburg on her Web site — can spread her message.
“It is an easier way to make a statement, as my old legs won't let me protest in the streets as in the ’60s,” she said. “Now I can attempt to raise the consciousness of unknown numbers, across the world, through a small enterprise.”
In essence, she hopes her paper dolls can march in her place.
“It may be a tiny step forward, but it’s a way for me to do a bit for change.”