The $95 Thakoon Panichgul Scarf That Could Help Reelect Obama

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Inspired by Vogue's Anna Wintour, Obama 2012 is selling pricey merchandise by high-end designers to help fund the campaign.
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The profile of Obama 2012 campaign manager Jim Messina that Atlantic alum Josh Green wrote is fascinating throughout. One of its focuses is the period that the subject spent traveling around the United States meeting with successful entrepreneurs and marketing experts in preparation for his job. Reihan Salam says the most interesting revelation is that Stephen Spielberg inspired a Web site attacking Mitt Romney's time at Bain Capital. While I too was amused by the revelation, I found myself most surprised by an anecdote about a meeting with a New York City fashion icon:


Early on, Messina met, and was dazzled by, Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue and inspiration for The Devil Wears Prada, who created a spreadsheet to convince him that fashion could generate serious money for the campaign. "What is the one thing everyone has from '08? A T-shirt," Messina says.

Wintour drew conservatives' scorn for appearing in an online video soliciting donors for a fundraising dinner for the first couple with Sarah Jessica Parker. Her influence actually runs much deeper. Last fall the campaign held a runway show in Manhattan to unveil a luxury clothing line by celebrity designers, including Vera Wang and Diane von Furstenberg. Messina, whose own fashion sense borders on the tragic, was introduced on the runway by Scarlett Johansson. Republicans gleefully mock Obama's designer collection as an exercise in narcissism. (The Romney campaign also sells merchandise, mostly the standard T-shirts, hats, and buttons.) Messina sees only the influx of millions of dollars--although he won't say how many millions. Sure, the $95 Thakoon Panichgul scarf and $75 Tory Burch tote bag are outlandish, but they net a lot more than $10 Hanes T-shirts. "Raise money, register voters, and persuade voters," Messina says. "Everything has to feed into those three things."

This is hardly the first instance of unexpected merchandise appearing in Washington, D.C. The Drug Enforcement Agency sells rubber duckies. (Seriously.) It is nevertheless intriguing to ponder the prospect of future campaigns selling merchandise for profit/campaign funds as much as publicity. Is "product development and sales manager" going to be a standard campaign staff position going forward?

Perhaps Republican candidates will start cashing in on the market for ideological goods presently exploited by conservative entertainers. I foresee Marco Rubio 2016 commemorative gold coins with a Glenn Beck-style markup built into the price and a line of Sarah Palin hunting rifles. Probably presidential candidates are going to shy away from the "survive the apocalypse" kits. But Obama apparel like the scarf has a rather tenuous connection to the campaign -- unlike a button or a T-shirt, it isn't likely to be noticed by people other than its wearer -- and if a primary motive is profit perhaps it makes sense for campaigns to use their Web and social media platform to sell all manner of products with no publicity value to the campaign at all.

Will there ever be a corporate partnership? If Sasha Obama runs for president will she sell a branded, special-edition Sasha for President iPad 9? It's very difficult to predict what the distant future of campaign merchandise will hold, but if present trends continue and goods are sold based on the profit margin it's going to be fascinating to watch how things develop. Already I'm thinking about missed opportunities. The margins on alcohol are great. What was the Obama thinking not asking his wealthy supporters in Napa Valley to create a branded Obama Pinot Noir? And once you get into food and beverages, have you seen the price of arugula these days...

Check out David Graham's gallery of the most bourgeois Obama campaign gear:

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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