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In the summer of 2008, I noticed something I’d never seen before. All around midtown Manhattan, on various sidewalks, people were selling cheap plastic trinkets out of open briefcases propped atop folding tray tables.
To anyone who’s spent any time in New York City—where makeshift sidewalk vendors are more plentiful than Starbucks—that probably doesn’t sound so strange. But as someone who’s lived here since before the Reagan/Carter election, these vendors were different. Rather, the nature of what they sold was different.
Months before Barack Obama formally accepted the Democratic presidential nomination, the name “Obama” was already being stamped on or sewn into objects of every type, and these objects could be purchased just about anywhere you happened to be standing. Keychains, buttons, hats, t-shirts were all readily available. I saw Obama skateboards and heard rumors of Obama bongs. Eventually, companies usually seen selling things like pewter gnomes and porcelain kittens got into the game, hawking commemorative coins and Obama dinner plates on late-night cable shows.
Never before had I seen such an orgy of political merchandising. And that was before the election. Afterwards, ObamaMarketing got cranked up to 11, going from street corners and the backwaters of cable TV to mass-market advertisers. In the weeks leading up to President Obama’s inauguration, Pepsi launched an ad campaign featuring Obama campaign poster look-alikes and modified slogans like “Yes You Can.”
From a business standpoint, that seemed a bit risky to me. Big brands usually try to appeal to the widest possible audience, so why would a company like Pepsi risk being seen as endorsing Obama, potentially alienating some of the nearly 60 million people who voted for someone else? Was Pepsi willing to cede the non-Obama vote to Coke?
In baseball, even the best batters go through major slumps. And in politics, presidents have periods where they lose popularity. So companies tying their brands to individual politicians are either naive about politics, or they and their ad agencies are run by people suffering from groupthink. Were they all drinking the Obama kool-aid? Had they not considered what might happen when Obama inevitably fell from messiah status to that of mortal politician?
“The Rise and Fall of ObamaMarketing” is also available as an iPod/iPhone-compatible MPEG-4 download.
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