Day 6

Hand sanitizer, colouring books and fly swatters: Inside the wacky world of election merchandise

Merchandise has been a part of the U.S. electoral system since the country first began holding elections, but Ad Age reporter Ilyse Liffreing says the pace at which campaigns have released products in 2020 is unique.

Campaigns are working hard to get their candidates elected, and merch is one way to connect with voters

As a form of election merchandise, the Trump campaign's 'Make America Great Again' hat continues to stand out. (CBC)

Ask Ilyse Liffreing about her favourite election 2020 merchandise, and she'll point to hand sanitizer and a colouring book.

Released by the Joe Biden and U.S. President Donald Trump campaigns respectively, the reporter and social media editor for Ad Age says the two items stand out among a sea of election swag because they speak to the ways both campaigns are responding to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. 

"They are both playing into COVID-19 and what people are using during this time, and what they need," Liffreing said, in an interview with Day 6 host Brent Bambury. "It's certainly different than past years, because there hasn't been this big of a pandemic before, and presidential campaigns have not had to come up with merchandise quite like this in the past."

Merchandise has been a part of the U.S. electoral system since the country first began holding elections, but Liffreing says what also makes this year's glut of campaign merch different is the sheer pace at which teams have been releasing products. 

The Biden-Harris campaign capitalized on a viral moment from the first 2020 presidential debate to sell t-shirts. The campaign soon stopped selling the shirts, but images live on in social media feeds. (North Texas Progressive/Twitter)

"This year, I really believe that both candidates are really trying to feed off of … social elements [that] pop up during presidential debates, and really trying to tap into real-time movements that come out of their campaign," she said.

"They have their social teams ready. They know as soon as they start seeing some conversations start peaking on Twitter and Facebook, they're right there with it."

Liffreing suggested that teams sometimes capitalize on memorable campaign moments and try to get orders out for products "before they even create the t-shirts themselves."

During the first presidential debate between Trump and Biden, for instance, a moment where the former vice president tried to quiet down an interrupting Trump led to the creation of "Will you shut up, man?" t-shirts. 

Though the book is now sold out, supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump's re-election efforts were previously able to purchase an official Trump-themed colouring book. (Official Trump Store)

And though the Biden campaign soon stopped selling the shirts, a fly landing on Vice President Mike Pence's head during the only vice presidential debate of the 2020 campaign led to another blockbuster merchandising moment for the Biden team: fly swatters emblazoned with the phrase "Truth over Flies". 

The fly swatters sold for $10-a-piece and quickly sold 35,000 units, according to Bloomberg

"As fast as they can turn around, say, this fly swatter, then they're going to put that up on their campaign sites and hopefully sell out as quickly as possible," Liffreing said.

It's not just the presidential campaigns jumping on the merchandising train. An entire ecosystem of third-party organizations are also paying attention to campaign developments in the hopes of selling products that connect with their own audiences. 

Betches Media is a woman-founded company aimed at producing original content that connects with, and is relatable to, a largely progressive and women-centric audience. 

So when California Senator Kamala Harris repeatedly — and politely — told Pence, "I'm speaking," as he interrupted her throughout their debate, the Betches team knew they'd found a new merchandising opportunity. 

"Usually repetition is what signals to us that that's going to be the breakaway moment," said Amanda Duberman — the editorial director for Betches Sup, Betches Media's news and politics website. 

"Kamala said, 'I'm speaking' … and we're like, 'I think that's the one.' And then she repeated it, and that's always the signal that that's going to be the takeaway moment." 

Jumping on Harris's "I'm speaking" moments enabled Betches Media to begin selling mugs, even before the debate had ended. 

Betches is unaffiliated with either presidential campaign. Duberman added that there is a fundraising component when it comes to the merchandise sold by her campaign, but funds from products sold go to independent groups — not the two major U.S. political parties or either of the two major presidential campaigns. 

The decision to sell campaign merchandise, therefore, is a way for Betches to connect with its core audience, while also highlighting the company's own internal values. 

"People are ready to wear their values on their sleeves, even literally," Duberman said. "And we're seeing that people really want to incorporate their values into every part of their life." 

Though now sold out, the Biden-Harris campaign sold bottles of hand sanitizer featuring former vice president Joe Biden's plan to combat COVID-19. (Team Joe Store)

While Betches has largely stuck to producing the usual assortment of merchandise you'd expect around election campaigns — mugs and t-shirts, for instance — Liffreing said there have been some interesting contributions to the merchandising machine from other groups supporting the presidential candidates. 

"There's been a coin that got a lot of buzz that basically commemorates Trump getting over COVID-19," she said. "And that is just hilarious, because it's being sold for $100 online." 

Still, Liffreing said she's not sure how powerful an effect campaign merchandise will have on convincing voters to cast ballots for one candidate or the other. 

"At this point, it might be hard to sway anyone. So many people have already voted," she said. "So now, it's just repping your side and getting people to vote. And not forgetting to vote." 


Written and produced by Sameer Chhabra.

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