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Obama goods are making history

The amount of merchandise for sale that is related to the president-elect is unprecedented, historians say.

January 19, 2009|Azam Ahmed

CHICAGO — Even in this bearish economy, it's hard to find many people who aren't long on Barack Obama.

The amount of Obama-related merchandise for sale is unprecedented, historians say. No president has seen so many people sell so many things so shamelessly: collectors' coins and plates, bath towels, bobbleheads and buttons -- just about anything that can have an image applied to it. Apparently, even the presidency can't escape the vise grip of pop culture. But for the most part, experts agree this is the way America has always expressed its political enthusiasm.

"It's just our very capitalistic approach to a fascination with a political leader," said Bruce Newman, a DePaul University marketing professor.

The extent of that expression, however, is unprecedented. Some major retailers estimate the Obama market could hit $100 million by the end of the inauguration.

"He's been his own economic stimulus package for a lot of people," said Tony Valtes, founder of Tigereye Design, an Ohio-based company that supplied the Obama campaign with the buttons, pins and other items sold on its website. Tigereye's total revenue is close to $16 million in 2008, the company said, with the majority from Obama-related sales.

Obama's staff did not respond to calls seeking the dollar amount of goods sold by the campaign.

But Jim Warlich, owner of Washington souvenir shop Political Americana, said of Obama: "I love that man."

"I've been in this 28 years, and I've never seen an image of a human being so popular except Jesus and maybe the pope," Warlich added.

But Chicagoan Corey Lynn and his business partner Michael Fay have not been as successful as they had hoped with their Barackas, maracas bearing the image of the president-elect's face.

"Everyone who ever sees them thinks, 'Oh my God, that's brilliant. You're going to be a millionaire,' " Lynn said. "No. Not at all."

"One risk is that people move on to the next thing in this kind of environment," said Julian Zelizer, history and public affairs professor at Princeton University. "If Obama became unpopular, will people start to sell anti-Obama stuff with the same kind of relish?

"You did see that with Bush, actually," he added.

Exactly what kind of control Obama has over his image is a matter of state law, experts say. And though some states protect anyone -- public or private -- whose rights to publicity have been violated, experts say it's unlikely the president-elect would sue.

"The short answer is he's not going to stop it," said Jane Ginsburg, a law professor at Columbia University in New York. "Even if in theory he might have such a right, the likelihood of his exercising it is probably not great."

Experts say consumers understand that Obama is not the one selling these items, and that means he is unlikely to take heat for any tasteless products.

Some say it's a little heartening for a country previously obsessed with the likes of Anna Nicole Smith to fixate now on the head of state.

"When you think about the things we have been really paying attention to, the fact that people are obsessed with the president-elect of the United States, I suppose that's a good thing," said Robert Thompson, professor of pop culture at Syracuse University.

Citing previous scandals, Thompson contends that the presidency was tarnished long before the first Obama cookie, balloon or perfume was sold.

"In recent history, one could argue that the presidency has been increasingly cheapened by none other than the president," he said.

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aahmed@tribune.com

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