BOB GARFIELD: Of course, opening up the design process to the crowd is happening elsewhere by other media outlets, various political groups or Web-friendly bands. All this is made possible through something called print-on-demand technology, which allows the production of small personalized orders, sometimes as small as just one, instead of those huge bulk orders that were necessary until not too long ago.
At the center of this personalized print-on-demand universe is the website Cafepress.com. Designers upload their work and then order t-shirts, underwear or even baby bibs stamped with that design. In fact, anyone can search the site and order a product created by anyone else, making the site a sort of crowd-sourced catalog that can react to cultural events with remarkable speed.
Just two days after Barack Obama announced Joe Biden was his running mate, there were 50,000 products promoting the duo. Cafe Press CEO and co-founder Fred Durham says that because Cafe Press handles the production, inventory, promotion and distribution, users can essentially be their own t-shirt company, as long as their designs are good enough to attract buyers. FRED DURHAM: So we could actually let people become kind of micro-entrepreneurs, selling the ideas in t-shirt designs with no money out of pocket because it is made on demand. BOB GARFIELD: Mm - I saw one t-shirt that said, “Meat is murder, tasty murder.” [LAUGHTER] That made me laugh out loud. And if I am the designer of the “Meat is murder, tasty murder” t-shirt and some third party decides to buy one or twelve of them, do I get a cut? FRED DURHAM: You do. So we have a base price for the product, and then we let the person who designs it set what the retail price should be. And once a month we send checks off to the designers for that difference. BOB GARFIELD: In addition to being an ongoing Web 2.0 business, you do double duty as sort of a political barometer, because by monitoring the sales of t-shirts from various points in the political spectrum, you can keep your finger on the pulse of the body politic, at least the body politic that covers its body with t-shirts. Who’s doing better in the t-shirt space, Obama or McCain? FRED DURHAM: Definitely Obama. It’s kind of you're either for Obama or you’re not interested in the election. McCain has not garnered, through the entire election, very much passion and interest from the community at all. BOB GARFIELD: Now, does this augur poorly for John McCain or is this just sort of a demographic quirk, Obama’s audience overlapping with the message t-shirt-wearing audience? FRED DURHAM: If this was our first election, I may think maybe it’s a demographic issue. This is our - the third election we've been through. George Bush merchandise was very hot during the previous election. So unless George Bush skewed young and hip, which I don't think was the case, then that argument doesn't take hold.
When we still had Ron Paul and Mike Huckabee, t-shirt sales were much closer to neck and neck. Every time one of the alternative Republican voices dropped off, the sale didn't go to McCain, but Obama’s grew by just about the exact amount.
The trends we've seen make kind of the t-shirt polls a very telling, perhaps even better than standard poll, view of what’s really happening and where the elections are headed. BOB GARFIELD: Hm, I've just got to challenge you on that. Are you serious or just being glib when you say “better than a traditional poll”? FRED DURHAM: Just like product research, asking people what they think of products, is a poor predictor of what people are actually going to buy, what we find with t-shirts, these aren't your average people at home. These are the enthusiasts who are definitely going to show up and pull the pull lever. The election’s not about the mood of the nation. It’s about those who actually get out and vote. BOB GARFIELD: Sloganeering can be a powerful tool, and the t-shirt is a perfect medium for it, but I'm curious if there’s things that you won't print on a t-shirt. FRED DURHAM: There are. You know, that’s a big debate here at Cafe Press. We weed out too much love and too much hate, basically. So no porn, no hate stuff because people stop showing up if you let certain people kind of dominate the conversation. BOB GARFIELD: Now, I was going through your site and [LAUGHS] you know, I was - continue to be freshly amazed at how clever ordinary civilians can be. FRED DURHAM: I really liked – several years ago - there’s a college intramural basketball team, happened to be they were all Native Americans, in Colorado, and they just created this kind of, you know, dorm pickup basketball team called The Fighting Whites. [BOB LAUGHS] And they were making fun of the, you know, kind of “fighting Indian” sort of slogans. [BOB LAUGHING] And they had this sort of 1950s white guy clipart on the t-shirt, and it turned into a massive media frenzy. And I just loved it, ‘cause with - you know, Rush Limbaugh talked about it but, of course, you know, the liberal side talked about it, too. And everyone had respect for this thing that felt like it should be controversial but was just funny and amazing and touching and, you know, patriotic all at the same time. I don't know how you could mix more together than with The Fighting Whites. BOB GARFIELD: Now, we've all seen phenomena like OK Go, the fairly obscure music group that broke out because of their treadmill dance on YouTube. Are there any Cafe Press stars that have risen from obscurity on the basis of a t-shirt design? FRED DURHAM: We've certainly had pop culture phenomena. We had one that was pretty big – “Free Katie” – Katie Holmes. When Tom Cruise was, you know, jumping up and down on the sofa on Oprah – [BOB LAUGHS] “Free Katie” was a huge design. And we had one called “American Apology,” with President Bush. Somebody wrote, you know, “I'm sorry, I didn't vote for him” in many languages, so you could wear that around the world when you’re flying around to let them know you weren't a supporter. And that really took off. BOB GARFIELD: And is there anything that has taken off, you know, more or less to your political chagrin? FRED DURHAM: To my political chagrin? Yeah, I can't think of anything. Everything I've seen that has taken off, it’s taken off because ultimately the social fabric of America cares about substance, believe it or not, even when it doesn't look that way. And I think freedom of expression is one of the core principles of America, and it works. BOB GARFIELD: Concerning the social fabric, is it 100-percent cotton or a cotton-poly blend? FRED DURHAM: [LAUGHS] We're cotton - yeah, all cotton. BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] All right, Fred. Thank you very much. FRED DURHAM: Thank you. BOB GARFIELD: Fred Durham is the co-founder and CEO of Cafepress.com.