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But the Hillary Clinton campaign webstore made news again last week with a Clinton-themed BBQ accessories line. The "Chillary Clinton" beer koozies and "Grillary Clinton" aprons teetered on the edge of millennial absurdity, accompanied by a grill spatula emblazoned with Hillary’s H logo. "Buy your summer swag now!" Clinton campaign spokesperson Ian Sams tweeted (he’s the guy modeling the apron).
Clinton’s not the only candidate selling political campaign merchandise that’s way more creative than bumper stickers. Rand Paul’s official store is just as slick and easy to navigate as Clinton’s, and it is stocked with everything from patriotic backpacks to crowd-sourced T-shirts and bag toss sets. "Rand Paul is extremely popular among college students and millennials. We have a lot of product on there that are especially focused on that demographic. Macbook skins, Beats skins, phone cases," Steve Grubbs, Rand Paul’s store manager, told Racked. Grubbs runs Victorystore.com, which launched in 1999 and now manages about 25 online stores.
While Clinton’s store is all positivity, Paul’s campaign shop goes negative with an entire section of anti-Hillary items. There’s "Liberty Not Hillary" tees, bumper stickers and an eye chart—a nod to Paul’s career as an ophthalmologist. The item that’s gotten the most buzz is Hillary’s Hard Drive, a $99.95 limited-edition, non-functional "erased clean email server."
"In a campaign store, you really have two goals," Grubbs said. "The first goal is to raise money to fund the campaign. The second goal is to use product in the store to help support the messaging from the campaign. That’s sort of where we have broken new ground. In the past, campaigns would just put up T-shirts, yard signs, and stickers. What the Rand Paul campaign decided to do was to make the store an extension of the messaging in the campaign. We don’t sell a lot of Hillary’s hard drive but it got a lot of publicity and it drove home the point about Hillary having that hard drive at home and not at the State Department."
Grubbs wouldn’t reveal how many hard drives the campaign’s sold, or get into numbers in general, but he did talk about the store's best sellers. A copy of the constitution autographed by Rand is a huge seller, but with it's $1K price tag, it's more of a free gift with your sizable donation. "You have two types of sellers. The standard products, the Rand Paul logo T-shirt. That’s the best seller. The NSA sky cam blocker, that might be our second best seller," he said. It’s a $15 camera blocker for laptops, that plays perfectly with Paul’s opposition to the NSA's domestic surveillance programs. As does the $25 bright yellow "Don’t Drone Me Bro" tee, another best-seller, that was designed by Rand’s nephew. It’s a personal favorite of Rand’s.
Louisiana Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal is another presidential candidate who is experimenting with using merchandise to make a direct statement and a splash in the media. His campaign unveiled a bizarre, controversial "limited edition T-shirt" last week bearing the slogan, "Tanned. Rested. Ready." Jindal tweeted: "The liberal media said, "There's not much Indian left in Bobby Jindal," so we made shirts to mock them. Get one here." This appears to be the only item Jindal is currently selling.
But what exactly is the message behind the "Grillary Clinton" apron, which is a bit more obtuse than the "A Woman’s Place Is In The White House" cross-stitch pillow? The grill spatula and baby onesie are all about pivoting perceptions of Clinton. Q Scores Company’s Steven Levitt, who measures the consumer appeal of brands and celebrities, told AdWeek: "They're thinking, 'Let's try and be like a consumer brand rather than a hard-nosed political figure. 'Let's try and soften up what may be a hard image, and let's really treat it like a brand.'"
All orders are treated as campaign contributions, but the data obtained might be even more valuable. Philip Bump writes in the Washington Post: "The gag that the campaign gear leverages is only incidental. What it wants is that sweet, sweet e-mail address and, like the drug pushers my generation was warned about, to give a you a little taste of what it's like to donate to a campaign in the hopes you'll come back for more."
Not only does a wide array of merchandise help bring in new donors, the New York Times reports that a broader selection can possibly reveal even more about shoppers. An anonymous campaign designer told NYT’s Vanessa Friedman that sophisticated campaign stores are similar to fashion chains in terms of targeting customers, saying: "In a thoroughly modern campaign, customers in a shop will be segmented into very specific streams that will be organized into fundraising buckets and targeted communications."
The cutesy merchandise isn’t winning over everyone. "What I always said and what we’ve done in the past, we apply an appropriate test. As in, ‘Is this appropriate for a person running for the office of the President of the United State?’" said Ted Jackson, the founder of Spalding Group, which runs Republican campaign sites and was the official licensee for both Bush-Cheney campaigns and ran the George W. Bush online store. Jackson currently runs JebBushStore.com, a web shop that’s not officially affiliated with the Jeb Bush campaign. Bush doesn’t have an official store at this point, but that could change. "There are things on some of theses sites that I find embarrassing. It doesn’t reflect well on the candidate and the dignity of the office. Some are just silly," Jackson told Racked. Jackson also refuted the idea that purchases on the site can reveal demographics beyond building up a database of supporters.
And not every candidate has a sophisticated store with wacky merchandise. So far the stores for Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Bernie Sanders are sticking to tried-and-true options like travel mugs and hats. Chris Christie, Martin O’Malley, Jim Webb, and Carly Fiorina don’t appear to have any official online options yet to buy merchandise, not even a T-shirt and definitely not a gold flash tattoo, as seen in Hillary’s shop.
Don’t underestimate the power of a flash tattoo or even a campaign button, however. "It’s easy to trivialize, but if you slide over to a branding analysis, you think about Coca Cola and the Superbowl, they all give people a chance to bond with that brand," Jackson said. "Politics has changed so much over the years. You don’t have time to be involved in campaigns, like you did 30 years ago. This is giving people a way to brand themselves with a candidate and make a political statement. If someone buys a bumper sticker or puts a sign in the yard, that’s a vote. You don’t have to worry about them voting."