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Trump Campaign Capitalizes On 'Rapid Response' Merchandise

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

If you tried buying a jigsaw puzzle recently, you know they're hard to come by because people at home are buying them all. I believe my brother in Indiana bought a significant percentage all by himself. President Trump's reelection campaign noticed this trend and is selling a 200-piece Trump puzzle. NPR's Tamara Keith reports on rapid response campaign merchandise.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: President Trump is standing in front of an American flag, faintly smiling and giving two thumbs up. And for $35, Trump supporters can make that image come together one piece at a time. Buying the Trump puzzle or a MAGA hat or T-shirt is actually a campaign contribution. And this merch is an important part of the Trump campaign's fundraising machine.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We've sold millions and millions of hats. Now, you go to a rally, everybody has the red hat.

KEITH: Of course, now, no one is going to rallies. But they are still buying Trump gear.

RAQUEL BRETERNITZ: It's very much an e-commerce approach to political marketing.

KEITH: Raquel Breternitz was the design director for Elizabeth Warren's presidential campaign. She says selling merch enables campaigns to reach people who wouldn't ordinarily give to a candidate.

BRETERNITZ: It feels different. Like, it doesn't feel like you're donating money to a campaign. It feels like you're buying something. And it's very much a way of virtue signaling, depending on what - how you define virtue. But it's very much a way of saying, like, here's what I believe. And I want to wear it on a T-shirt. Or I want to wear it on a hat.

KEITH: Those shoppers turn over their contact information, which can be used later to solicit donations, invite them to volunteer or to make sure they vote. The Trump campaign does a lot of what Breternitz calls rapid response merch, capturing a moment and converting it into a product. During the lead-up to impeachment, President Trump was talking about former Vice President Joe Biden's son at a rally.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: By the way, whatever happened to Hunter? Where the hell is he?

KEITH: And right there, a shirt idea was hatched.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: Where's Hunter? Hey, fellas, I have an idea for a new T-shirt.

KEITH: That night, there was a new $25 shirt in the Trump online store. And then there are the Trump straws. Last July, campaign manager Brad Parscale tweeted grumpily about a paper straw disintegrating in his beverage. Within hours, the campaign store was calling them liberal paper straws. They've now sold more than a million dollars' worth of plastic Trump straws.

The Warren campaign also did rapid response merch, including a hugely popular billionaire tears coffee mug. But Breternitz says they worried about reputational risk with each new item, wanting to make sure it fit the candidate's brand and wouldn't offend or otherwise come back to bite them. With the Trump campaign, she says, there is seemingly less worry about being offensive.

BRETERNITZ: That's almost good because that's his brand. And that's what people look for from him. And so he can jump on any piece of outrage. He does not need to worry if it's true or not. And he can sell straws off of it.

KEITH: Or T-shirts, or whatever. And despite the pandemic, the digital marketing firm Bully Pulpit Interactive found the Trump campaign bumped up its spending on merch-related Facebook ads in late March, as it typically does at the end of fundraising periods. Sarah Mathews, the deputy press secretary for the Trump campaign, says its merch-forward approach is a point of pride.

SARAH MATTHEWS: Whether it's the iconic red MAGA hat, plastic straws or our newest product, which is a Trump-themed puzzle that we put out to help keep people busy during the quarantine, it lets supporters be a part of the movement, but also gives them high-quality, made in America merchandise in return.

KEITH: And clearly, people are buying. The Trump campaign spent more money in March with vendors that make its merchandise than any other month since September of 2016.

Tamara Keith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.