The year of merch — New Yorkers showing their civic pride and support for local businesses by buying logo tees and tote bags — has met the mayoral campaign. Most, but not all, candidates have a hat or a poster or a button (and sometimes a lot more) supporters can buy. It’s still anyone’s race. But is there a clear winner in the swag department?
Although candidate branding goes back many decades, to “I Like Ike” and beyond, Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign was the watershed moment. His strategists recognized that the visual tools of commercial advertising and branding could help elevate an Illinois senator to a national leader, emphasizing his perceived strengths and combating his perceived weaknesses, and it worked. Since Obama’s campaigns, good (and genuine) political graphics have become de rigueur, and sophisticated visual language has trickled down to congressional races and now to local government (sometimes with a direct ripoff of Obama’s). Today, candidates have to meet with potential voters in more places than ever before — on social media, television, radio, podcasts, print and digital news outlets, billboards, the list goes on — all while contending with the attention economy and people who have deeper understandings of visual communication. In his 2020 presidential run, Pete Buttigieg even released a downloadable design tool kit his supporters could use. That said, the strongest political branding speaks authoritatively to the audience it’s supposed to read, as Trump’s MAGA hat proved. It broke most of the so-called design rules, but it got one thing right — it was instantly identifiable from any angle, even at a great distance — and it really worked on his base.
The candidate pool, which topped 40 hopefuls at one point, still has few household names (except Andrew Yang, for better or worse). No candidate has polled above the low 20s, and an estimated 50 percent of voters are still undecided. It’s precisely this scenario in which branding can help establish and shape — and, perhaps, redirect — someone’s reputation.
This year, the mayoral candidates have taken full advantage of our Zizmorcore moment in hopes of winning over the votes, and closets, of New Yorkers. We took a look at all the official merch.
In the design department, Morales is a cut above. She made headlines for her custom campaigning sneakers — so it’s no surprise that her people put some extra consideration into merch for her supporters. Her branding is more evocative than the other candidates’, with nods to historic campaigns by Black women (the all-caps, high-impact typographic treatment similar to the ones used by Shirley Chisholm and Kamala Harris) and to progressive candidates (the use of yellow and purple, which happens to be her favorite color, instead of the Establishment red, white, and blue palette). Her use of a gradient is supposed to evoke an energy aura, as the campaign’s creative director and merch designer Jiar Zeman explained in a recent Medium post, and perhaps a rainbow flag. (It has also become a background that her supporters use on their avatar.) Morales’s “I PREFER EDIBLES” T-shirt takes a quote of hers that appeared in the New York Times (one of the first and very few references to her campaign in the paper, and one that blew this detail of her worldview wildly out of proportion) and reappropriates it to highlight the need for cannabis justice. The idea for the shirt came from a team phone call and was up on the site the next morning. Then there’s the prayer candle, on which a collage of Morales surrounded by flowers is reminiscent of the viral political posters the artist Broobs has been making. The candle is something for her faithful supporters to burn ahead of the election, and perhaps afterward if things don’t go as they hope.
Like Morales, Wiley has picked purple for her campaign. (Is this the new hue for progressives who are trying to distance themselves from the Democratic Establishment?) A former civil-rights lawyer, she has billed herself as “The Crisis Candidate” and is using her many years of experience in local government to back up her assertion that she can get things done. Her branding, however, feels more personal than that of a stuffy bureaucrat. For starters, she is going by her first name, as candidates like Hillary, Jeb!, and Joe have done (perhaps also since her last name is associated with slyness and cunning, like a certain Looney Tunes character). Her “Maya for Mayor” logo, rendered in a scribbly font on a face mask, feels informal, and the smiling illustration of her feels approachable. Her use of “BLACK WOMEN LEAD” on totes, stickers, and buttons speaks to a political and social moment when intersectionality — a social theory that takes the overlaps of race, gender, and economic class into account — is entering mainstream conversations more.
Another City Hall veteran, Garcia has been involved in leadership with a few municipal agencies: the Department of Sanitation (where she was commissioner), the Department of Environmental Protection (she was incident commander after Sandy), and various government entities as the COVID-19 “food czar.” She is playing up her environmental commitment through the use of a distinctive yellow-green that’s similar to the hue that has been used with Green New Deal branding. She is also tilting her slogans upward to signal forward action, as AOC did. Meanwhile, her wordy, charming “CUT THE BUREAUCRATIC NONSENSE” tote will likely speak to folks who just want results — which is more or less how she has framed her whole campaign.
Yang’s a veteran of the start-up scene, so it makes sense that he’s got the most boring-yet-competent branding. It looks strong on the water bottles, buttons, watch caps, and pins he sells. The campaign says the variety of merch “has always been about meeting the moment,” and indeed he started with face masks and free Zoom backgrounds before moving to cold-weather gear, like the knit cap, and then a water bottle for summer. Yang’s reliance on just his name (no special fonts or graphics or symbolism here) makes sense since he’s the only candidate who people seem to know is running. Also notable: He seems to have ditched the MATH hat.
Ray McGuire, a former Wall Street executive running as a Democrat, has declared himself the candidate for Black voters (and the city’s business elite). His branding is filled with symbolism (some of it intentional, some of it not) and looks bold on all of his merchandise. The RAY FOR MAYOR wordmark (here is another candidate who wants to be known on a first-name basis) is rendered in a typeface licensed from Vocal Type Co., the design firm run by Tré Seals. Named Martin, the typeface is inspired by signs held at the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike. Black and yellow have become shorthand for the Movement for Black Lives and do a lot of heavy lifting in McGuire’s branding by telegraphing BLM values. According to the campaign, yellow was chosen because of its association with New York City, specifically yellow cabs, and to reference the RAY OF HOPE slogan. “Our design and logo have nothing to do with the movement,” the campaign says. That said, after years of seeing posters and flyers with a similar black-and-yellow motif, it feels like appropriation. McGuire has committed to reforming the police but not disinvesting in them, as the Black Lives Matter movement has called for, and racism and capitalism are intimately connected, as historians and activists like MLK and Angela Davis have long argued.
Stringer recently lost a number of endorsements after sexual-misconduct allegations surfaced. It remains to be seen if they’ll sink his campaign. But as of today, he’s still in the race. Stringer wants you to know he’s as New York as they come, and he’s taking every possible visual opportunity to tell you. At the top of his multipart logo — which he has put on T-shirts, buttons, face masks, posters, and lawn signs — the arc of MAYOR 2021 evokes mid-century Americana; the campaign says it was meant to suggest round union logos. The little “NYC” icon tucked in above his last name will remind older New Yorkers of subway tokens. The skyline T-shirt and mug — clearly the most collectible merch of the group — is a play on the orange Zabar’s logo. And some campaign buttons display the candidate’s chunky horn-rimmed eyeglasses along with the phrase “TEAM STRINGER.” It’s a pretty transparent play at making a politician with a somewhat brusque reputation seem a bit more friendly. (But don’t eyeglasses already belong to Bernie Sanders?)
Seeing as Sliwa’s claim to fame is founding the Guardian Angels — the citizen safety patrol that has walked NYC’s streets in distinctive red berets and satin bomber jackets since 1979 — it’s a missed opportunity that he didn’t call upon those familiar symbols in his branding. Instead, he has opted for a fairly generic red, white, and blue wordmark on a baseball hat (why not a beret?), a hoodie, a T-shirt, a phone wallet (who even uses a phone wallet?!), and a tote. His “REFUND THE POLICE” T-shirt slogan similarly feels underthought, just another conservative appropriation of a progressive slogan. (Also, without a hyphen in RE-FUND, it suggests that he wants to return the cops to the store where he bought them.)
Oh God … bikini bottoms have entered the mayoral merch race. Before her political ambitions set in, Prussman was a stand-up comedian, and it makes sense that her branding feels satirical, from the Colbert Report–style portrait on her coffee mug to the wink at subway graphics on her “Wake the F up NYC” slogan.
Eric Adams, one of the candidates leading in the polls, hasn’t released official merchandise. (Perhaps logo tees don’t jibe well with his power suits and neckties.) Shaun Donovan is another leading candidate who has skipped making merch. Shockingly, Paperboy Love Prince — one of the race’s biggest personalities and arguably the most progressive — doesn’t have merch either, though they are selling vintage clothes and artwork at their Bushwick Love Gallery.