Commentary: Take that Chia Obama off your Christmas list

The (Tacoma) News TribuneDecember 11, 2010 

I wasn’t so much worried about being accused of racism when I approached the register at the Pearl Street Rite Aid.

Instead I was worried they wouldn’t sell me the “Chia Obama Special Edition.”

I’d rushed to the store Thursday evening after a friend in Bremerton had seen clerks at his Rite Aid removing the product from a display.

They were leaving “Chia Lincoln,” “Chia Washington” and “Chia Statue of Liberty.” But they said they’d gotten orders from headquarters to remove not just “Determined” Chia Obama, but “Happy” Chia Obama as well.

Both versions had, it seems, been recalled.

Not recalled-recalled, but banished from the stores nationwide. Somehow, though, the order hadn’t reached Tacoma. So I remained as calm as could be expected, made small talk with the clerk and tried not to run to my car after the transaction was completed.

Friday morning I called Rite Aid spokeswoman Ashley Flower.

“Some of our customers felt we were making some sort of political statement with the Obama Chias,” Flower said. “That was not our intention.”

Did they object because they thought the chain was promoting the president or because it was somehow offensive?

“That’s between our customers and the company,” Flower said.

Not wanting to get between Rite Aid and its customers, I called the company listed on the bottom of the box – Joseph Enterprises Inc. in San Francisco – and I got a call back from Joe Pedott.

Yes, that Joe Pedott.

You can have your Ron Popeil. Keep your ShamWow and your Shake Weight. Joe Pedott is the marketing whiz who popularized not just the Chia Pet in all of its iterations, but also The Clapper.

Yes, that Clapper.

He told me the story of Chia Obama, an idea that came to him in a dream. Actually, a nightmare.

It was after the 2008 election, and the mood of the country reminded Joe of the Great Depression, which he had lived through as a child in Chicago. Even though he is a lifelong Republican, he said he voted for Obama because of his message of hope (and, Pedott said, after Sarah Palin was put on the GOP ticket).

So out of this feeling of despair for his country came a vision for an inspirational gift item featuring the new president.

“I got obsessed,” he said.

The Chia Obama should be familiar to anyone acquainted with the Chia Pet. In other words, everybody. Pedott bought the rights to the novelty in 1977 and sells half a million a year.

It’s even in the Smithsonian.

Yes, that Smithsonian.

My special edition says “Barack Obama 44th President USA” on the front of the pedestal and “Yes We Can” on the side. The box includes the message: “Hail to the Ch-Ch-Ch-Chief.”

I told Pedott that I’d chosen “Determined” Chia Obama because it was, you know, more dignified. He assured me I’d bought “the good one.”

Initial sales were excellent. But in April 2009, responding to complaints from customers, Walgreens said “No You Can’t.” Six months later, CVS/pharmacy followed suit.

And now, Rite Aid.

“I have a product everyone wants – there is tremendous demand – and they can’t get it,” Pedott told me. “Why? Because the stores are afraid of offending people and I don’t understand how.”

The funny thing though – funny peculiar, not funny ha-ha – is that according to Joe, Obama loves it. Shortly after the election, he showed the product to a Chicago woman who was a longtime Obama friend. She arranged for Pedott to be invited to a May 17 reception in Indianapolis, where he gave a copy of the Chia to the president and posed for pictures.

“He said, ‘This is a very nice likeness of me, but I have green hair,’” Pedott said of the president’s reaction.

Still, the stores remained skittish. He even developed the Lincoln, Washington and Statue of Liberty Chias to make retailers more comfortable. They weren’t.

“I get messages saying it’s racist,” Pedott said. “It really hurts me.”

McClatchy Washington Bureau is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service