The people have spoken: America loves Obama. But our obsession may have gone too far.
By Justin Remus
Everyone wants a piece of Barack Obama—literally. How else do you explain the insane media feeding frenzy that surrounds the nation’s first Black president? But is the Obama phenomenon, in both its marketing and media aspects, merely harmless, or is it a reflection of America’s crazed celebrity lust, an insatiable longing to connect with public figures that can never be completely satisfied?
The word most commentators used to describe Obama’s election was…
…“historic,” and that is certainly true. Moreover, some pundits have made a convincing case that Obama’s election was really the first real election of the 21st Century. In many ways, George W. Bush was an anachronism, a product of a dying era. Although it’s easy to forget, Bush was fairly popular for much of his first term, mainly because of September 11th. But although there are many fervent supporters of the 43rd president, there is little or no corollary in terms of the merchandising that has occurred in conjunction with Obama. There is an endless fascination with him that has taken on a fetishistic quality, and it has manifested itself in some bizarre ways. The mass merchandising of President Obama and his family is the most obvious.
Anything and everything that features the new president and his likeness is being manufactured and sold worldwide. The products include: sneakers, T-shirts, action figures, wine, lipstick, earrings, soft drinks, dog-tags, wristbands, glow-in-the dark refrigerator magnets, solar-powered key chains that flash “Barack” every two minutes, lighters, tote bags, paperweights, hot sauce, coffee (a half-Hawaiian, half-Kenyan blend, naturally), mouse pads, and the list goes on. eBay has over 35,000 Obama items on sale, including copies of the sold-out first printing of The Amazing Spider-Man in which he makes a guest appearance. Amazon has several thousand bobblehead dolls and action figures for purchase. There is even a dildo called “Head of State” that resembles a miniature Obama. While this schlocky commercialization doesn’t diminish his presidency, it certainly doesn’t elevate it.
Obama’s family is not immune, either. Toy company Ty now sells Beanie Baby dolls of two young Black girls that were originally intended to be marketed as “Sasha” and “Malia.” The company denies that they are replications of the Obama daughters, but pressure from Michelle Obama forced them to rename the dolls. Mrs. Obama took offense at what she saw as an invasion of her family’s privacy. Despite Ty’s caving, however, there wasn’t much she could do, legally speaking. Any image of President Obama and his family may be used without permission because they’re in the public domain. Last November, The New York Times estimated that profits have exceeded $200,000,000 for Obama merchandise, and that figure will likely increase considerably over time.
Even the Obama inauguration went far beyond the scope of previous ones. More than 900 vendors were licensed to sell their goods on the D.C. streets up to and during the ceremony. Political Americana, a store located one block from the White House, makes a killing selling Obama-related products and plans to stay open indefinitely. The store is packed daily, and visitors have the option of having their photo taken with a life-size cardboard cutout of the president. The official inauguration committee, which has ties to the president himself, has also capitalized on the merchandizing boom. The difference, though, is in the prices. An official Obama bronze inaugural medallion costs $60, not exactly chump change. To no one’s surprise, the seal of “official” Obama merchandise has been co-opted by other vendors who are desperate to make a buck.
“Whole companies have opened just because of Obama,” says Mort Berkowitz, a Manhattan-based manufacturer and collector of political memorabilia. Mr. Berkowitz told The New York Times how he used to produce fewer than 10 commemorative buttons for an inauguration. For the Obama inauguration, he made 30 different types of buttons, plus 25 styles of watches, which showed Obama posing with his wife and children or Martin Luther King, Jr.
A one-man stimulus package, President Obama provided a boost for the economy just by being elected. He and his family have graced countless magazine covers, including People, Time, The New Yorker, and many others. During the week of November 17, 2008, People sold 2,000,000 copies of their election issue on newsstands, an approximate $8,000,000 windfall. (It usually sells about 1,500,000 copies.) After Obama’s victory, Time (under the same media conglomerate as People) published a book, President Obama: The Path to the White House, with more than 550,000 copies printed. Betsy Burton, a spokeswoman for Time, bragged, “It could go higher.”
America’s fascination with this man and his family seemingly has no limits. A survey by the Pew Research Council for the People and the Press discovered that 55% of African-Americans were saving a newspaper documenting last November’s election results. This is a perfectly reasonable souvenir to hang onto, especially for a minority group that has been disenfranchised for so long. But the Obama merchandising juggernaut goes far beyond this. Perhaps with the hopes and expectations for the new administration so high, somebody was going to figure out a way to cash in on Obama’s star power. Americans are showing their support for the new president in the same way they show their support for a favorite recording artist: by buying stuff with his name on it.
When people buy Obama memorabilia, it is euphemistically referred to as “embracing their brand,” just as they would with Nike or Apple. It’s been suggested that, by purchasing this merchandise, consumers are “supporting” the Obama Administration. But this is just a rationalization. Al-though he has genuinely inspired the country to take more of an interest in government and politics, to the companies who use his image to hawk their wares, the president is merely an easy marketing tool. For evidence, one needs only look at the ubiquitous Pepsi ad campaign, which cynically exploits Obama’s buzzwords of “hope” and “optimism” to sell cola.
Obama is not the first president to excite the public consciousness. During the 1960 presidential election, John F. Kennedy was marketed with similar sophistication, and his portrait can still be found in many homes across the country. But no one ever attempted to put JFK’s face on a sex toy (or if they did, we haven’t heard about it). Certainly, our culture has become much more commercialized in the last half-century, but even that can’t account for Obamamania. What is it about this particular president that makes him such a cash cow?
The obvious answer is his race, but it’s not as simple as that. As impressive as Obama is as a man, his power as a symbol is even greater. The American public has embraced him as a talisman connected to a turning point in the nation’s history. To his followers, he represents an end to the racism and inequality of times past, as well as a rebirth from the dire economic and political climate of the past eight years. With the economy in freefall and the war in Iraq still raging on despite popular sentiment, his reassuringly take-charge (yet non-threatening) personality and his feel-good promises of “hope” and “change” have made him a messianic figure to people who are desperate for both. Some have said that his followers are like a cult, because they are incapable of taking control of their lives and need a larger-than-life prophet to do it for them. At campaign rallies prior to the election, some onlookers actually fainted. Even for those not in the grip of ecclesiastical bliss, the president is a living blank slate on which people can project not only their hopes, but also their fears. Gun sales went up astronomically in Red States after the election because many felt that firearms would be banned by the new administration.
Obama’s power as an icon is formidible, but there are still those for whom the man himself is the ultimate piece of Obama merchandise. Bill Clinton certainly had his female admirers, but sex appeal has not been such a factor in an American president’s popularity since JFK. During last year’s primaries, an anonymous fan dubbed “Obama Girl” assembled a video in which she pranced around scantily dressed and intimated that she wanted nothing more than to get it on—as soon as possible, preferably—with then-candidate Obama. The video was highly popular on YouTube and illustrated how the longing for some tangible connection to Obama and all he represented had gone from the sublime to the absurd. And Obama Girl isn’t the only American with a crush on the president, judging by all the hoopla that arose when a shirtless Obama was photographed bodysurfing in Hawaii after the election.
Public figures have to accept intense scrutiny—that goes with the territory. But perhaps there should at least be a modicum of privacy that everyone deserves, no matter who they are. In the age of reality TV, the mundane is glorified and the most trivial details of almost anyone can be known by everybody, though it’s not clear what purpose this serves. Obama’s election neatly dovetails with America’s fixation on celebrities, and the marketing blitz of Obama goodies will only end once the people get tired of him and move on to their next fetish. Given the American public’s short attention span and overall impatience, there may be a backlash if they feel he’s not living up to his campaign promises fast enough.
Copyright Star Media Summer 2009