Want to sell something? Put Obama's face on it

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 26, 2008 

WASHINGTON — As the federal government tries to revive the nation's ailing economy, President-Elect Barack Obama is proving to be a one-man stimulus package.

Tight-fisted consumers are separating themselves from their cash for Obama memorabilia, for travel to witness his Jan. 20 inauguration and even for rental housing in the Washington area as hotel rooms are becoming hard to find.

"He's a cottage industry," said James Fisher, a marketing professor at St. Louis University. "Obviously, being the first African-American (elected president) makes it historic. People are trying to purchase a piece of history — or sell it."

Everyone from street vendors hawking Obama T-shirts to major American corporations is vying for a piece of the action. Southwest Airlines, US Airways, JetBlue, and Virgin America are adding flights and bigger planes beginning Jan. 17 to accommodate the millions of people who are expected to come into Washington's three airports for inaugural festivities.

"Flights are filling up, and Southwest wants to offer our customers more service into the D.C. area for the inauguration celebration," said Pete McGlade, the airline's vice president of schedule planning.

The crunch on Washington's hotels, bed and breakfasts and hostels for Inauguration Week prompted Andre Butters to create a Web site, www.inauguralhomes.com, about 10 days ago. He hopes to cash in on the demand for private housing or apartment rentals around the nation's capital.

The site's main page features a picture of a smiling Obama with the Capitol behind him and the line "Get the ultimate inaugural experience by renting a DC area home."

Butters charges $9 to list available properties — he has about 140 so far — but plans to raise his fees after Thanksgiving. His site is getting 10,000 visits a day.

"Obama is great for business," said Butters, who decided to create the site after agreeing to house 10 relatives in his two-bedroom, one-bath suburban Washington apartment for Obama's inauguration. "I've talked to thousands of people so far. We're hearing from people in France, India, China. It's one of the things where there's a demand on both sides: People here need money and some people need housing."

Interest in all things Obama is making money for the media. Newspapers such as The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times have made millions of dollars selling front-page reprints of Obama's victory, along with coffee mugs, T-shirts and press plates featuring the president-elect.

Washington's Newseum, a journalism museum, sold out its "Historic Change" poster featuring a collection of "Obama Wins" newspaper front pages the first day it hit the museum store. The poster is the most requested online item this month, Newseum officials said.

Obama book sales also are doing a brisk business.

Obama's "The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream," "Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance," and "Change We Can Believe In: Barack Obama's Plan to Renew America's Promise," occupy the top three sports on The New York Times' nonfiction paperback bestsellers list.

And Obama's acknowledgement that historian Doris Kearns Goodwin's 2005 book "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln" is influencing his Cabinet selection process has powered it to No. 4 on Amazon.com's nonfiction paperback list.

"They're buying because they believe it's going to be a historic moment," said Allen Adamson, the author of 'BrandDigital: Simple Ways Top Brands Succeed in a Digital World.' "They recognize it's a turning point in American history."

The hunger for Obama items is also creating a bump in the collectables industry. Ads flooding television and the Internet breathlessly tell viewers that they can "Own a piece of American history" by ordering Obama commemorative coins, stamps, and plates.

Ted Hake, the owner of Hake's Americana & Collectables and a political memorabilia buff, said that Obama's election has created new collectors looking to buy Obama items.

"Obama's the next biggest thing to come along besides (John F.) Kennedy and the (Apollo 11) moon landing — Obama's a real phenomenon," Hake said "I was at a (collectables) show about two weeks ago and it was business as usual for the regular collectors and dealers, but when the public came in, they were looking for Obama stuff."

Hake warns that new collectors looking for their Obama stamps, coins and buttons to increase in value might be disappointed. Adamson said the rush to cash in on Obama may soon hit a saturation point.

"In their rush to make a buck, people will make an Obama hubcap or something," he said. "Given American merchandising, we're getting close to getting Obama branded stuff that will hit the ridiculous test and won't sell."

ON THE WEB

Andre Butters' Web site

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McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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