Your Guide To a Fantastic Political Campaign T-Shirt
October 2, 2020
Every election campaign needs good branding. And merchandise plays a big part in that. Do you know what your campaign t-shirt will look like? Whether you’re running for City Council or Student Government, and don’t know where to start on creating an iconic campaign shirt, this is the guide for you.
Why Use T-shirts and Apparel for Campaigns?
It seems like every major political campaign uses merchandise, and specifically t-shirts, as part of their marketing and fundraising strategy. But why? The answer goes beyond “that’s how it’s always been.”
Campaign T-shirts Engage Small-Dollar Donors
As we’ve seen in recent election cycles, small dollar donations are getting more news coverage than ever before. Part of the reason behind this is that it coincides with the public’s growing disdain for candidates who finance their campaign by taking big money donations from a relatively small number of wealthy donors.
The line of thinking goes that a politician funded by wealthy people will do the bidding of said people; by contrast, a politician funded by a large number of small-dollar donations will better represent their constituents as a whole. But how does one maximize the number of donations they receive?
In a word: incentivize. Yes, one could argue that policy should be enough to mobilize the masses, but we all know it’s a little more complicated than that.
Giving them a gift, like a T-shirt, in exchange for their donation makes for a tangible give-and-receive transaction that satisfies our innate desire for instant gratification. It’s a way to convince folks to donate when they would otherwise not.
Once the t-shirt is in the hands of the donor, there’s only one thing left for them to do: wear it! And that’s a boon for any political campaign. Just because it’s a simple concept doesn’t make it any less true– branded T-shirts are a “walking billboard” for the organizations that make them.
If you’re running for office, or organizing some other sort of political campaign, I’m sure you’re painfully aware of your team’s marketing budget. This is a great way to stretch said budget. If you have to give something away in order for people to literally buy into your campaign, you might as well make it something that helps spread your message.
Every politician wants a groundswell of support. If you can give the impression that you’re “starting a movement,” you might just be able to sway those fickle undecided voters. While most of us will agree that you can’t rely on t-shirt sales alone to determine the level of support you have, there is something to be said for the optics of it.
Because like it or not, we live in an era where politics are treated like team sports. And you want your team to look bigger, more unified, and frankly, cooler than your opponent’s team. That means having apparel like t-shirts, hats, and hoodies available for your ‘teammates’ to show their true colors.
The t-shirt is a bonding force. It tells the wearer “you’re one of us now,” while signaling to everyone else exactly where they stand. They won’t want to flip their vote after pledging their allegiance to you, or else they would look like a turncoat.
The unifying nature of a good political campaign T-shirt makes it a virtually limitless fountain of content for your social media presence. The sense of community that comes from this “uniform” goes hand in hand with the sense of community you’re trying to foster with your social media strategy.
Marrying these two elements could be as simple as regularly posting photos of a group of folks wearing your t-shirts. Or it could be encouraging shirt buyers to snap a photo of themselves wearing the shirt and posting it to social media under a custom hashtag of your choosing.
Again, it’s about doing what you need to do to signify that you’re leading a cause that’s far greater than simply winning the election– namely, that you’re going to represent the people.
Collect Donor Information
T-shirt sales take on added importance when you consider the amount of information needed just to send the shirt to the donor. In order for it to arrive safely at your door, they need to provide their name and address at the very least, and will most likely also have to give their email address and phone number. That’s not nothing!
The fact that they gave you this much info, along with a payment, indicates that they have more than just a passing interest in your campaign. That makes them the most invested portion of your voter base; the people who will talk positively about you to others, post about you on social media, and ultimately vote for you on election day.
These are the folks to stay engaged with! Use the info they’ve provided you to communicate with them the points you want everyone to hear, while perhaps also appealing to some of their more niche concerns. Each T-shirt sale opens that line of communication, without feeling invasive, or like an unequal trade.
Have a Great Slogan
If you look around at the merchandise of big-time political campaigns, most are using some for of catchphrase to decorate their wares. You don’t need a political science degree to understand why: a good slogan summarizes what your campaign is all about, and is memorable, too.
But you can’t just string together a few words and expect it to resonate with people. If you’re struggling to develop a catchy slogan, remember the following tips.
Keys to a Great Slogan
It’s short. You want your slogan to be memorable, and look good on a shirt. Go with something six to eight words– at most. Less is more here.
Highlights a benefit. What will people get if they vote for you? Don’t go into policy here. Lead with feelings.
Explains commitment. Now more than ever, a candidate needs to show they will serve the people if they win. Your slogan should acknowledge that, again with an appeal to emotion.
It has a ring to it (or rhythm, or rhyme). Pop songs are so catchy because the words are designed to stick in your head. Your slogan needs to do the same thing.
It’s honest. Don’t make promises you can’t keep. That probably takes “I’ll give everyone a million dollars” out of contention as your slogan.
Fortunately for you, this is not the first time someone had to come up with an amazing slogan that’d look great on a shirt. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s ‘I Like Ike’ belongs in the Hall of Fame of good slogans. It rhymes, for one, and it gives supporters something easy to say when the presidential question comes up in casual conversation. It doesn’t exactly highlight benefits or explain commitment, but its ring cannot be denied. Sometimes, you have to break the rules to take advantage of something really great.
Barack Obama’s “Yes We Can” catchphrase might be even better. It’s three chantable words offering a can-do attitude that places not just him as a leader, but voters as part of a team.
Tread carefully if you choose to make a pop culture reference. Meme-adjacent jokes are definitely en vogue today, but they’re fleeting. What’s hip one day is Milkshake Duck the next. And while I get the phenomenon of screaming “yaaas queen” as much as the next Extremely Online™ person, this shirt from Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign feels pandering, to say the least.
Strike A Balance Between Bold and Restrained
Running for political office is a bold decision, and the artwork used during the campaign should match. When creating a campaign shirt, go for a look that makes a statement.
What will that statement be? One of strength? Progress? Pride? A return to sanity? It’s important to use iconography that matches the sentiment you’re trying to convey with your campaign.
Why was Obama’s “Hope” poster also such a popular T-shirt? Because of its bold portrait of the man himself. This is not to say that you should commission your own portrait (at least, not until you’re running for president). But remember what Obama represented to his base in the lead-up to the 2008: change, progress, intellectual leadership. Potential and, well, hope! His stern countenance in that portrait suggests that while bold action was needed, it would be done with careful forethought.
Compare that with this (admittedly non-official) design from Herman Cain. It’s a portrait of him, sure. It even has bold font and patriotic colors, just like the Obama shirt. But does it convey anything, aside from a complete lack of understanding basic design principles? Maybe that Mr. Cain has great teeth? The design muddles the message, literally. Apparently it’s supposed to say “Proud to Be an American/ Herman Cain for President.”
The fact that you can’t even read his full name anywhere on the shirt is another problem that you absolutely must avoid. Fortunately, that’s not too hard to do. Remember that if you’re going to emphasize one part of your name, embolden the last name. That’s how it appears on the ballot, after all!
Choose Quality Items to Offer in Your Store
This element is pretty straightforward. People don’t want to buy crap, even if it’s to help a person they believe in.
When it comes to designing t-shirts for an audience, you want it to become the buyer’s new favorite one. While a great slogan and wearable design can go a long way to this end, comfort and fit are really what can sway things in your favor.
Perhaps most importantly, you want to give a shirt that won’t shrink. Shrinkage makes shirts completely unwearable, nullifying the ‘walking billboard’ element your t-shirt needs to offer. But you also want a shirt that’s flattering and feels good to the wearer. Put together, those three things can come in opposition to one another: a shirt that doesn’t shrink may be too boxy looking for some women’s tastes; a ‘fashion cut’ shirt might look shrunken on stockier guys.
That’s why it’s key to offer different shirt styles, if your budget allows. It’s important to make sure that your designs look good on each type of shirt you offer. That might mean you have to simplify the design to allow for the maximum number of shirt styles. Don’t be afraid to do this! Sometimes simpler is better.
After all, that’s why you’re going with a T-shirt. It’s comfortable, versatile, and in everyone’s wardrobe. You’re not picking something with limited utility, like cufflinks with a tiny picture of your face in the middle, or a Himalayan salt sculpture of your face.
I’m not saying that if you employ these elements into your political campaign t-shirt, you’ll be a shoe in to win. But you will be able to walk away, be it as a winner or loser, without regret about how you presented your platform.
About the Author
Kyle Greco is the resident writer at RushOrderTees, where he blends word nerdery with his love for T-shirts. A graduate of The College of New Jersey, he is interested in exploring the intersection of clothing and culture. In his spare time, he makes music, builds guitars, and cooks with his wife. He enjoys hot dogs, sports, and collecting too many hats.