With only five (shopping) days to go, the Jon Stewart-Stephen Colbert "Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear" has a new message. Instead of Stewart’s promises to "take it down a notch," the comedy duo wants you to ramp-up the power of your online dollar.
This week the pair's site launched official merchandise – you can get a T-shirt that reads, “I have a scream,” or choose from a range of bumper stickers, posters, and buttons.
Sure, profits from the swag sale will go to charity, notably the fund to help preserve the National Mall where the rally is being held. But for a pair of satirists with a serious goal in mind – to take Washington to task over its political dysfunction – does the online bid to cash in on T-shirts and knickknacks cast them as glorified hucksters?
Or is it just one more step toward a world where the lines between politics, entertainment, and commerce melt?
Both, says Kelly O'Keefe, managing director of the Virginia Commonwealth University Brandcenter. With 24-hour news coverage and endless viral cycles on YouTube channels, “We are seeing a real rise in people viewing their politicians as one more form of entertainment,” says Mr. O'Keefe.
Wearing a T-shirt for an upcoming rally is akin to wearing your favorite sports team's gear, he says.
'Entertainment Tonight' meets C-SPAN
The trend toward “seeing these politicians less and less as statesman and more as mere entertainers" is accelerating through commentators such as Fox News’ Glenn Beck, whose credentials are from the entertainment, not politics.
“It’s not too long before I expect to see tabloid shows such as TMZ or 'Entertainment Tonight' regularly following our politicians on their shows,” says O’Keefe.
To some, T-shirts and bumper stickers sold online represent a cheapening of the communal political experience. Memorabilia used to mean you were actually part of an event, indicating engagement. They were totems relating to a real experience.
Now, you can buy the rally memento before the rally has happened and without actually attending it. "The one danger is that there will probably be some people who will buy the T-shirt and not go to the rally,” says Matthew Hale, a political scientist at Seton Hall University. “In order for this to be a success for Stewart, lots of people have to actually show up at the rally – and perhaps the merchandise could detract from that."
To others, however, the memorabilia are "a form of political engagement." The entertainment factor in the Stewart-Colbert rally is helping to drive a deeper political activism, because the rally is not simply a comedian's prank, says Amber Day, author of “Satire and Dissent: Interventions in Contemporary Political Debate.”
Stewart and Colbert have built a loyal following with their "skilled deconstruction of the flaws of contemporary political debate,” she says, and fans look to these shows to poke holes in the media spectacle.
“They draw attention to the emptiness of political talking points and to the hypocrisy of the media pundits who repeat them,” she says.
Wanted: web traffic
As for Viacom, the parent company of Comedy Central, which will show the rally, getting people to the website – for information, charitable donations, or purchases – is all that matters, says Gordon Coonfield, a mass communications expert at Villanova University.
Money made on each purchase is not as important as the website loyalty and sheer traffic, agrees Paul Levinson, author of “New New Media.” Merchandise is just another way to generate site loyalty, he adds.
But the lines between modern politics and entertainment have been blurring since the 1960s, when Vaughan Meader created the JFK parody album, “The First Family,” he adds. The difference today, he notes, is technology-driven.
“The ease of access today makes engagement with every form of political and entertainment activity almost effortless,” he says.
That could lead to satire becoming an even greater influence on future political dialogue. “Satire was never meant to be merely quiet tongue-in-cheek,” Mr. Levinson says. “What new, new media has done is put a Bunsen burner on what is already a provocative mix.”