US presidential campaign: Candidates cashing in on merchandise

Some items for sale include (from left) a guacamole bowl from Mr Jeb Bush's team, a hard drive sold on Senator Rand Paul's online store and a throw pillow from Mrs Hillary Clinton. Merchandising brings in some extra money and also helps candidates br
Some items for sale include (from left) a guacamole bowl from Mr Jeb Bush's team, a hard drive sold on Senator Rand Paul's online store and a throw pillow from Mrs Hillary Clinton. Merchandising brings in some extra money and also helps candidates brand themselves.PHOTOS: JEB2016.COM, RANDPAUL.COM, HILLARYCLINTON.COM

WASHINGTON • Candidates running for president of the United States are cashing in on merchandising this election season, coming up with novel paraphernalia to get their voter base to donate.

Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton has a "Grillary" Clinton spatula, Mr Jeb Bush has a guacamole bowl to appeal to Hispanic voters, and Mr Marco Rubio has Marco polos - get it?

Experts say that besides being able to bank some extra dollars for a campaign, it also allows candidates to connect with voters and get them excited about the campaign.

According to reports, campaign merchandising really kicked into high gear when President Barack Obama's campaign brought in US$40 million (about S$56 million) from such items alone in 2012.

At the time, Mr Obama had items designed by many of the top names in fashion, including Tory Burch, Marc Jacobs and Diane von Furstenberg, which were part of a line called Runway to Win.

But some of the best sellers were the tacky things such as "O'Bama" Irish-themed gear (referencing his part-Irish heritage) and Obama birth-certificate coffee mugs (due to real-estate mogul Donald Trump's insistence that Mr Obama had not actually been born in Hawaii).

While every dollar collected in a campaign is important, Assistant Professor of Political Science Jacob Neiheisel from the University of Buffalo points out that candidates still need donors "willing to back them without receiving some kind of bauble or trinket in return".

The real importance of such merchandising, he points out, is that it allows candidates to connect with supporters and brand themselves.

"Campaigns often have a sizable symbolic component to them that provides voters with easy-to-understand shortcuts about who the candidates are and what they stand for," said Dr Neiheisel.

For example, the guacamole bowl is a "fairly overt attempt at appealing to Latino voters", he added.

Mrs Clinton has a throw pillow with the words "A woman's place is in the White House", naturally targeted at female voters.

Many items that seek to humanise the candidates show off their fun side or their folksy charm.

"The beer koozies (insulated can holders) being offered by Hillary's campaign team seem calculated to broaden her appeal to the average American," said Dr Neiheisel.

Mr Bush's team probably had the same intention when they wrote this description to accompany the guacamole bowl: "Jeb and (wife) Columba love whipping up guacamole on Sunday Funday. Now, you can get in on the act with this Guaca Bowle."

One of the cheekiest items on sale is "Hillary's Hard Drive" - not the real one of course - which makes fun of Mrs Clinton's e-mail scandal and is sold at Kentucky Senator Rand Paul's online store.

Besides which products to sell, candidates also have to consider where the items are made.

Many of the online stores prominently indicate that items are "made in America" , while Mrs Clinton goes a step further, stating that her T-shirts are printed by unionised workers.

But for all the novel items available, the mighty T-shirt or cap with a campaign slogan can still go a long way, as "the merchandise becomes a point of departure for a conversation about the candidate with friends, family, and co-workers", said Associate Professor of Political Science Melissa Miller from Bowling Green State University.

"The campaigns can make money on such merchandise, but they also end up with walking, talking billboards for their candidate."

Melissa Sim

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 14, 2015, with the headline 'What's in store to broaden candidates' appeal'. Print Edition | Subscribe