Local businesses hop on the change train to profitsville.
Charismatic, eloquent, optimistic, likable —of all the adjectives used ad nauseam in gushy descriptions of Barack Obama, you rarely see or hear the word salable.
But take a look around town and it’s clear Barack business is booming. From souvenir shops on the Mag Mile to hole-in-the wall convenience stores, local businesses equate Obama’s name and likeness less with his platform of change than with the kind of change found in a cash register.
Recognizing the candidate’s cachet, local profiteers, er, proprietors are actively cultivating associations between their businesses and the hometown political hero. Restaurant Medici on 57th (1327 E 57th St, 773-667-7394) is attempting to drum up new customers by selling Obama polos and T-shirts that read OBAMA EATS HERE, turning the shirts’ wearers into walking billboards. At Plan B Bar + Kitchen (1635 N Milwaukee Ave, 773-252-2680), the Ciroc Obama (an $8 mash-up of Ciroc vodka, Chambord and lemonade) has been the bar’s top-selling cocktail for the past several months. “If it was just another vodka drink, it wouldn’t be a great seller,” says Plan B co-owner Ryan Golden. “I think people are more open-minded about the drink because the name catches their eye.”
Recent media coverage of Obama’s hair cuts at the Hyde Park Hair Salon & Barber Shop (5234 S Blackstone Ave, 773-493-6028) has brought an influx of new clients. “He has definitely added a lot of business to the place,” says Zariff, Obama’s barber for 15 years. “People come from all over the country and the world. They want to get their hair cut by Barack Obama’s barber.”
At tourist knickknack shops like Where the Buffalo Roam (28 S Michigan Ave, 312-553-4324) and Accent Chicago (151 E Randolph St, 312-233-1572), Obama merch including playing cards, shot glasses and a package of two Obama golf balls (insert junior-high lunchroom joke here) are currently as popular as the stores’ perennial best-selling Cubs memorabilia. “Anything that has Obama on it, people are buying it,” says Where the Buffalo Roam manager Jose Bahena. “We can’t keep his stuff in stock.”
The Obama spend-o-rama has spread well beyond the tourist traps of Michigan Avenue, infiltrating corner bodegas, neighborhood beauty-supply shops and even discount stores, all of which seem to be selling the same five T-shirt designs. Uptown’s S+L Dollar Plus, home of cheap household miscellany, is hawking $15 CHANGE WE CAN BELIEVE IN shirts printed with a shiny image of Obama. The owner, who declined to give his name, called them “bling shirts,” adding they’ve recently overtaken the Tupac THUG LIFE tees as the shop’s top design.
Robin Phillips, owner of North Center pet boutique Zulu (3919 N Lincoln Ave, 773-281-2009), stocks the I [HEART] OBAMA dog collars ($16.50) and leashes ($18) sold by a company called Dogs 4 Democrats. “I’ve been selling out of them,” Phillips says. “I need to order more, actually.” Similarly, Obama merch has Jay Schwartz, co-owner of T-shirt emporium Strange Cargo (3448 N Clark St, 773-327-8090), seeing dollar signs. “He’s a powerhouse,” Schwartz says. “Everyone loves Barack right now.”
The commodification of Obama’s image is perhaps the best thing that could’ve happened to the campaign, says Bruce Newman, associate professor of marketing at DePaul University and the author of books such as The Marketing of the President. Although Obama’s spokespeople did not respond to TOC’s calls and e-mails, Newman says the campaign must be ecstatic seeing people shell out hard-earned dollars on merch. “In marketing, it’s called attribution theory,” Newman says. “If Obama gets you to make a definite financial commitment, it’s hard for you not to support him down the road. Even if it’s just a $15 T-shirt.”