By Brendan (promo marketing magazine)
July 1, 2019
There is a very fine line between a clever and timely commemoration of a noteworthy moment and going too far. In the case of Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris, her latest T-shirt release is teetering on that line after her campaign team created a T-shirt that references a rebuttal directed toward Joe Biden during the first round of debates.
During the debate, the topic of Biden’s past relationship with pro-segregation legislators came up. Harris told Biden that she was one of the students that was bused to newly-integrated public schools in California.
“There was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bused to school every day,” Harris said. “And that little girl was me. So I will tell you on that, on this subject, it cannot be an intellectual debate among Democrats. We have to take it seriously.”
The Harris camp wasted no time pumping out merchandise for Harris’ mic-drop moment with “That Little Girl Was Me” T-shirts, depicting a young Harris.
The problem, for many observers, was that Harris’ point loses some of its genuineness and impact when it’s turned into something people can buy or a tool to raise money. The moment feels more artificial or manufactured, and Harris has so far received a flood of disappointed or angry comments on Instagram.
“Hmmmm man I was like so about her at the debate tonight and everything felt and seemed so authentic, and then I come on here and she already has a T-shirt ready to sell,” one Instagram user wrote. “This just made me mad uncomfortable. Like I legit just second guessed wanting to vote for her after seeing this lol.”
“Kamala—commercializing what I (and probably many others) believed to be a beautifully emotional/off the cuff comment to Joe Biden so soon afterwards makes your thoughtful words seem hollow and calculated,” another wrote. “Please don’t give anyone reason to believe you’re disingenuous!”
It does seem a little disingenuous. Obviously, things can happen fast in the promotional apparel world, and as we’ve seen with micromoment merchandise, it’s possible to pump out apparel and other products quickly and in large quantities. But this wasn’t a sports championship or a viral tweet—it was what appeared to be an emotional response to an important political issue. Commercializing it so quickly makes it feel like a calculated move, undermining the moment by giving the impression that it was a planned talking point rather than a genuine moment.
Had Harris waited a few days to give off the impression that her team hadn’t already planned on using this remark as a way to sell shirts, it would’ve appeared much more organic. It could’ve been a “Wow, what a great line. Let’s run with that!” moment, rather than a “Make sure you say this so people understand why we’re selling a shirt with a childhood photo of you” moment.
It’s a fine line to walk, and the Harris team didn’t quite stick the dismount here. Is it the most egregious mistake a presidential candidate has ever made? Hardly. But, in a race like this where it’s still anyone’s game, this could be costly.
Brendan Menapace is the senior digital editor for Promo Marketing. While writing and editing stories come naturally to him, writing his own bio does not.