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Political T-shirts make a creative campaign statement

Personal political opinion may have found new electronic billboards on blogs and YouTube.

But don't count out the low-tech T-shirt yet.

Whether it's "McCain: He had me at war hero" or "Obama: This time I want a smart president," the T-shirt that tells the world who you're voting for, or against, is just a few clicks away.

Wearing your cause or candidate on your chest has a decades-long history, but it has really taken off in recent election cycles as online sales and print-on-demand technology have allowed anybody with a catchy, earnest — or mean — slogan to slap it on a T and sell it.

One of the biggest purveyors of message T-shirts of all kinds (as well as bumper stickers, ball caps, baby onesies, mugs, totes and more) is CafePress.com.

In business since 1999, Cafe Press allows anyone with an idea — political or otherwise — to design T's and other products and sell them through the site. More than 6-million "shopkeepers" have done so. Items are printed only when they're ordered; Cafe Press also handles payment and mailing, with the designer getting a cut for each sale.

In this campaign season, a lot of the 150-million products available at the site are political; senior manager of public relations Marc Cowlin says they account for about 20 percent of the company's revenues in an election year.

Unlike some partisan T-shirt sale sites, Cafe Press will sell anybody's political opinion. No matter what your party or political passion, you can find a T-shirt to announce it — or design one.

The company's just-revamped site includes a Cafe Press Meter highlighting hot items, which right now means political paraphernalia. As of Oct. 25, the total number of products created there for Barack Obama stood at 2.8-million, with 1.6-million for John McCain. Sarah Palin was at 800,000, then Joe Biden at 400,000.

Obama items were running away with the sales tally for Oct. 19 through Oct. 25, the latest rating period, accounting for 49.5 percent of political products sold. McCain products trailed with 19.6 percent, followed by Palin at 17 percent and Biden at 7.5 percent.

The almost instantaneous nature of print on demand means today's T-shirts can quickly reflect developments in political campaigns — or politicians' gaffes.

Within a few days of the last presidential debate, there were more than 150 products bearing variations on McCain's reference to Obama as "that one," most of them pro-Obama spins like "This one is voting for That One," "It's President That One to you" and "That Won."

A few days later, Obama's "spread the wealth" conversation with Joe the Plumber, a.k.a. Samuel Wurzelbacher, inspired shirts showing the candidate in a Robin Hood cap with a hammer-and-sickle crest, above the caption "Obama Hood" — not to mention a carload of "I am Joe the Plumber" shirts.

No sooner had news of Palin's wardrobe surge hit the news than someone was selling a plain white T that said "This is how we dress in 'Real America.' " McCain's current favorite form of address inspired a portrait of him with the caption "Not my friend." Palin's "pit bull in lipstick" line in her convention speech inspired piles of products pro and anti, and even got rolled into a "that one" T: "Pit bulls with lipstick for that one."

Obama's surname inspires rhyming, from the popular "Obama Mama" to the enigmatic "Llamas for Obama." McCain and Palin get rhymed as well, although mostly by detractors: "McSame/Failin" or "McBush/Quaylen."

Obama opponents play on his name in other ways with "Obama bin Biden," "Obama bin Lyin" and a shirt that has an "O" and an "a" with a drawing of a cartoon-style bomb in the middle.

The official McCain-Palin logo, with their names separated by a starred line, gets reinterpreted unflatteringly: "Unstable/Unable," "Geezer/Dingbat."

Some messages are interchangeable, depending on your party. You can buy "Sarah Palin? You're kidding, right?" or "Barack Obama? You're kidding, right?"

Some T-shirts borrow familiar images, like the one that superimposes Palin's face on the classic Rosie the Riveter poster from World War II, with the slogan "We can do it!" Another puts Palin's and McCain's faces on the farm couple from the painting American Gothic, with the line "Building a bridge to the 19th century."

Recent offerings in support of McCain have taken an odd accentuate-the-negative turn: "McCain: Because he's not Obama," "McCain: Because he's not a socialist" and "McCain isn't Bush." Most pro-McCain products, though, are straightforward, with messages like "Country first."

The pro-Palin shirts, on the other hand, take some unusual tacks. There's one trend toward girly shirts in lots of pink, including "Lipstick Republican," "I have a girl crush on Sarah" and one with a pink-tinted White House.

Others shoot for a Dirty Harriet image, with Palin squinting through a rifle scope above the slogan "This is all the foreign policy she needs," while some demote McCain downticket: "I'm voting for Sarah Palin! Oh, yeah, and that old guy, too."

Maybe the strangest pro-Palin items are a bunch that seem to confuse the campaign with a Girls Gone Wild contest: "McCain-MILF," "I wanna be Sarah's intern," "Sarah Palin: Because America needs a spanking!" and a T showing a gushing oil derrick embraced by a silhouetted, curvy woman, with the words "Sarah Palin: I'd drill that."

Some of the anti-Palin shirts aim at her policies, like "A vote for Sarah Palin will be your last choice" and a wolf cub's photo with the caption "Sarah Palin killed my mother." Others are snarky, like the photo of the tiny, unprepossessing mayor's office she once occupied with the words "Hell, I could run Wasilla," or the silhouette of a pregnant teen from the movie Juno, with the spelling changed to "Juneau." Among the most popular slogans is Tina Fey's perkily delivered line: "I can see Russia from my house!" (You can also get a "McCain/Fey" shirt.)

Poor Joe Biden just doesn't get much T-shirt play either way. Lots of shirts say "Biden" or "Obama Biden '08." But clever or even nasty ones are scarce, though you can find the unconvincing "Ladies love Cool Joe" and the simply baffling "Joe Biden is thugged out."

After Tuesday, a lot of these items are likely to vanish. A few entrepreneurial types are aiming for longer shelf life with products like a T-shirt with a weathered-looking version of the Obama campaign logo — so if he wins, wearers can look as if they knew all along. Or, if you're on the other side, you can already get an "Impeach Obama" bumper sticker.

Otherwise, all these shirts will be swell for wearing while you wash the car.

Colette Bancroft can be reached at cbancroft@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8435.

Political T-shirts make a creative campaign statement 11/01/08 [Last modified: Sunday, November 2, 2008 7:32pm]

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