Back when she was a campaign staffer for retired U.S. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, Amethyst Polk remembers seeing a woman wearing a button that read: “Little old ladies for Obama.” It made her laugh, but it also stuck with her as an example of the kind of targeted swag most effective for political campaigns. “People like people who are like-minded,” says Polk, who now works for the American Red Cross and other nonprofits. “Wearing a shirt that reads ‘Teachers for Mr. A’ or ‘Gun owners for Mrs. Z’ helps voters to serve as brand ambassadors to their own personal network of family, colleagues and friends.”
Polk says campaign insiders often referred to the T-shirts, bumper stickers and other freebies they give out as “chum,” because they’re a “quick and easy way to attract hungry voters, volunteers and donors.” As Election Day draws near, expect the campaign waters to fill with even more of the patriotic shark bait. For candidates in smaller races, the biggest promotional purchase tends to be yard signs, says Luke Shenk, graphic designer and sales manager at Capitol Promotions (asi/157125) in Glenside, PA. But T-shirts printed with the same logo as the signage are also popular, he adds.
Elaine Kittrell, general manager of Sampan Screen Print (asi/317757) in Jeffersonville, IN, has seen an uptick in T-shirt sales, as races in the region have gotten more competitive. In addition to having volunteers wear campaign shirts for door-to-door canvassing, candidates are handing out free tees and balloons at fairs and other events, she says.
Campaign apparel logos tend to be on the conservative side, generally the candidate’s name in bold print, with perhaps a hint of stars and stripes incorporated into the design. “It’s politics,” Shenk says. “We work in red and white and blue. Fortunately, and unfortunately, that’s 90% of what we do.” Some candidates, particularly those with big names and deep pockets, spend more time and money creating iconic logos and developing thoughtful promotions. Mark Graham, CEO of Toronto-based distributor Rightsleeve (asi/308922), points to Barack Obama’s presidential campaign as “swag brilliantly put together,” with a distinctive logo and cool branded products that created an emotional connection with voters.
When catering to candidates’ needs, there are a few special considerations. Many have strict “made in America” requirements. In her campaigning days, Polk remembers having to give up her rental car to former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland because she was the only staffer who’d received an American brand. Finding promotional items manufactured in the U.S. also proved challenging at times, she says. Another big issue for certain candidates, according to Shenk, is that products be made by unionized shops. Other candidates don’t have the same priorities. “You’re working with two different sets of vendors at that point,” he says.
Besides T-shirts, popular items for political candidates include buttons and reusable grocery bags. Polk says voters particularly appreciate items – like buttons and magnetic bumper stickers – that allow them to remain noncommittal. If you have a job that frowns on overt political statements, for example, a pin can easily be stowed in a glove box or purse before clocking in. Cloth grocery bags are nice because voters use them all over the place, not just at the supermarket. “Those are basically portable signs,” Shenk says.
Though it often seems like political parties are in nonstop campaign mode, companies like Capitol Promotions tend to see a two-month lull in business after Election Day, with orders picking back up in January, as a new crop of candidates prepares for the polls. “You have to pack the business in during the windows of opportunity before primaries and the general election,” Shenk says.