Designs for Democracy

At print-on-demand site CafePress.com, there's been a surge in the design and selling of items related to the Presidential election

The mid October public service announcement from MoveOn.org followed a familiar pattern. A high profile director, in this case The Bourne Identity's Doug Liman, filmed celebrity actors from the cast of soap opera Gossip Girl and photogenic "real" people promoting a message in support of Barack Obama. In this particular ad, teen heartthrob Penn Badgley brandishes a baseball cap printed with the slogan "Drill Baby Drill" in outrage at the sentiment of the Republican slogan.

In doing so, Badgley made Jason Bostic's day.

"MoveOn AND Gossip Girl hate me?" Bostic, 29, gleefully wrote on his blog, AmericanElephant.com. "Life is good!" For Bostic, designer of the hat as well as other Republican merchandise, being pilloried by two contemporary cultural phenomena—one, an unapologetic liberal champion, the other a TV show that glorifies the life and times of East Coast elites—has been the highlight of an otherwise disappointing year. He shuttered his Cary (N.C.) mortgage business back in September, a victim of the credit crunch and the slumping housing market.

Presidential elections traditionally inspire the sale of candidate-supporting merchandise. But this year, just as Barack Obama has famously adopted Web 2.0 tools (BusinessWeek, 6/24/08) to galvanize the Facebook generation, individuals have been able to use the Web to have their say—and sell it, too. Sites such as CafePress.com offer members the opportunity to print an image onto any of around 100 items, from T-shirts to buttons to yard signs. "Shopkeepers," as members are known, simply upload an image, decide what types of items to print on, and set a sale price. Products are produced and distributed whenever orders are placed.

Election-Related Merchandise

As of Oct. 25 nearly 2.8 million items had been tagged "Barack Obama" on CafePress; just over 1.7 million were tagged with the name of his Republican adversary, John McCain. Amy Maniatis, vice-president of marketing for CafePress, reckons that election-related merchandise currently comprises some 35% of its business. (While CafePress doesn't break down figures, sales were $100 million for 2007.)

"Elections in general have been a wellspring for political junk and souvenirs," says Steven Heller, a prolific design writer who's been monitoring the design and graphics of the election on The New York Times election blog, Campaign Stops. "This year, there's more of it because it's easier to do DIY stuff and distribute it through the Web." Certainly, the prevalence of broadband connections and the sophistication of readily available design tools has led to an astonishing variety of designed goods—and a spectacularly quick pace of their arrival.

"In the final presidential debate, the candidates were talking about Joe the Plumber. Thousands of Joe the Plumber-themed pieces of merchandise were uploaded by the next morning," says CafePress' Maniatis. "It was the same thing with Sarah Palin and her joke about a pit bull and a hockey mom. When she made that speech, we had under 1,000 Palin and McCain products. Within a day it went to 100,000, and now we have 864,000. People are involved and engaged. Whether they're expressing support or consternation, they're doing it with merchandise."

Far Left Meets Far Right

Indeed, the CafePress Election 2008 marketplace is probably one of the only places where you can buy a T-shirt with the slogan "Give al-Qaeda a Chance. Vote Barack Obama" along with a button declaring "Obama: This time I want a Smart President." The design melting point reflects the far reach, deep interest, and polarizing opinions surrounding this intensely scrutinized election. "People from the far, far right come together with people from the far, far left to shop and create," says Maniatis, who outlines CafePress' tolerance policy as steering clear of "too much love, too much hate." In some instances, canny shopkeepers are offering anything they think might sell, for and against all candidates and their campaigns.

Some, meanwhile, have taken the opportunity to use their design skills to support both their candidate of choice and their creative urges. Minneapolis designer Tia Salmela Keobounpheng designed a series of jewelry items using the Obama logo as inspiration . "As a working mother who doesn't always have time to give for volunteering, and someone whose monthly budget is too tight to make regular donations to a political campaign, I have found a way to do what I do and be able to give back to Obama's campaign," she says of her designs. Keobounpheng donates a small sum with each purchase.

For now, creating provocative Republican-supporting souvenirs has become Bostic's main source of income and his venture remains solely for-profit. "I don't like getting into specifics about sales or income, but I will say that September was amazing," he writes in an e-mail. "I made more money in one month selling these shirts and bumper stickers than I ever took home in a month owning a mortgage company." Come Nov. 5, of course, Bostic will reevaluate. "I'm considering going to law school next fall," he says. "But American Elephant will continue regardless. There will always be a market for conservative merchandise, and I definitely will continue voicing my opinion."