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Election T-Shirts Build a Community of Supporters

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Until the historic presidential campaign of 2008, most American's memories of political t-shirts were limited. These short-sleeved garments were red and blue on white cotton, always featuring the candidate's name (often last name only), and maybe a star and stripe somewhere to make it look distinctive. These t-shirts expressed an understood fact: if you were among the few to wear a candidate's beefy-t banner, you supported and loved them, and you wanted others to know it. Wearing a political t-shirt became a sign of heartfelt commitment to a candidate, worn gloriously in the face of winning, and bravely the day after a loss.

Now it's commonplace to see presidential t-shirts everywhere. Those with the candidates' names and logos are as clear as ever. However, this year's election-season marathon features endless nuanced variations. One reads, "Got hope?" with the Obama campaign Web site address listed below it in small type. Another states, "Nobama" with the Obama logo crossed out. Though a McCain-supporting t-shirt, it still reads "Obama." If you read it too quickly, some may miss the "No" part and register the Obama name and logo anyway. In the t-shirts of 2008, red, white and blue have been joined by black, pink and yellow.

Online, presidential t-shirts are even more ubiquitous. Photoblogs dedicated to favorite T's and the people who wear them dot the Web. Pictures of negative-campaigning-type t-shirts spur news sites and political blogs to link and refute. Sometimes, people seem more involved with t-shirt messages than with how their favorite candidate will solve tough problems facing the country.

With images so readily shared and t-shirts so easily sold online, political t-shirt design has morphed into something almost unrecognizable compared to 2004. To further understand this evolution, I spoke to Karl Long, creator of T-Critic, one of the Web's most popular t-shirts blogs. In just over two years, the site has grown to 65,000 uniques per month and almost 5,000 RSS subscribers. By day, this Nokia product manager lives technology and brings his social media strategist experience to analyze the behavior behind t-shirt design, political expression, and the mindset which encourage them.

OffTheBus: What have you seen this election period regarding t-shirts?

Karl Long: I've seen an awful lot of Obama t-shirts, that's for sure. I don't have anything to compare it to because I wasn't running a t-shirt blog in any other election cycle, but this level for one candidate seems unprecedented.

OTB: What about other candidates' t-shirts? Earlier in the campaign, did you see any for Hillary Clinton and Ron Paul, who both had large online followings?

KL: Overall, I didn't see much for other candidates. I have seen some really good imagery related to artwork put out by the Obama campaign. His "HOPE" poster has also inspired a ton of t-shirt parodies of this artwork. For one of the most fun examples, the designer took the Obama Shepard Fairey image and did a portrait of Luke Skywalker (from the film Star Wars) in that style and tagged it with "A NEW HOPE". The designer apparently did so with the Obama campaign's blessing, as well.

Others come to mind where instead of Barack Obama's face on the t-shirt, it was Sarah Palin's or John McCain's face done in the same style; instead of it saying "HOPE", it said "NOPE".

OTB: What is the tone of these shirts? It looks like they are created by Obama supporters but based on the images, they seem barely related to the original Obama art or message.

KL: I think the Obama image has become an iconic image. It's in the zeitgeist. It's in people's consciousness, and I think people are using that to create things that are not connected to Obama. Sometimes they're just using the imagery itself for inspiration.

OTB: In the past, political campaigns have been much more protective of their candidates' imagery. What is different this time around? Why have candidates allowed, even encouraged, their supporters to adapt their imagery?

KL: From the standpoint of social media, the Obama campaign especially has been much more open and has put many more opportunities in place for people to be creative and express themselves. There has been an encouragement of consumer engagement. There was a t-shirt competition on the official Obama Web site, and there is a whole line of t-shirts, for sale on the site, designed by well-regarded artists and designers.

OTB: How are social media forms, like blogging, promoting these t-shirts?

KL: One of the interesting parallels between t-shirts and social media is that niches do really, really well. So a lot of t-shirts are inside jokes for a group, or they are an inside statement for a select group of people; these t-shirts are, almost by definition, a niche.

Social media is one of the best mechanisms for connecting and having access to a global niche, and any global niche in any particular topic is big enough to be interesting and have enough people involved to get things done. I think a lot of t-shirts connect people in a similar way.

OTB: These t-shirt communities seem to be a powerful expression of how people are relating together online, and how fully involved they are in this campaign season.

KL: The broadcast mentality doesn't work. Social media isn't just about talking to people. It's about enabling people to create value and to extend the culture of whatever it is you're doing out to other people, so they can continue to spread those ideas.

When people can claim a personal connection to a candidate -- either through creating and wearing an item, or by creating online media and conversation around it -- communities build. That is translating to support for candidates in the brick-and-mortar world.

In 2008, a t-shirt is so much more than a t-shirt.