Black President, White Hands?

Turns out everyone’s favorite cardboard president is not our president at all.


In the four years since the “skinny kid with a funny name” vaulted to national prominence, President Barack Obama’s face has been subject to countless artistic riffs and interpretations—many of them for sale. Kitschy knickknacks inspired by Obama, from “rednecks for Obama” T-shirts to “the audacity of soap” cleaning products, are a boom industry. None of this merchandise, however, causes quite the same excitement as the life-size cardboard cutouts of Obama that are setting hearts aflutter from London to the local liquor store.

The only problem? Everyone’s favorite cardboard president is not our president at all. Look closely from the neck down. Look at the hands poking out from the sleeves. They are white. Yes. That’s right. Look. The ubiquitous Obama cutout seems to have a white body—one that’s about 30 pounds heavier, with clearly white, wedding band-less hands, holding glasses that Obama doesn’t wear—beneath the head of the real 44.

Just when we thought the nation was finally in black hands!

The good news is that the cutout Obama, like the flesh-and-blood version, is made in America. But Advance Graphics, the Utah company that claims to be “the home of cardboard people” and was responsible for most of the commercially available “stand-ups” of the new president, appears to have grafted Obama’s head onto the body of a more heavyset white man.

A. Boyd Campbell, a Mississippi-based online seller of the cutouts, explained that licensing and copyright law requires cutout manufacturers to get permission to use an image. To create a cutout of, say, Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow, that means going through Hollywood studios. “The name of the game is getting the rights,” he said, “and sometimes that gets complicated.”

But political celebrities are not managed by Hollywood studios; so for presidential candidates or other well-known public officials, stand-up manufacturers typically ask campaigns for a stock photograph. “It has to be a full body image to work as a cardboard cutout,” said Campbell. “So if the campaign provides an image that’s from the neck up or the chest up, then they may have to invent legs for the rest of the body.”

That seems to have been what happened to “Barack.” The Obama administration declined to comment on the issue, um, at hand. A representative at Advance Graphics, who asked not to be identified, confirmed that there had been no official request to the campaign for a full-body image, claiming only that Obama had told the company, at some point during the campaign, that he “enjoyed the stand-up.”

The cardboard model, which, like the president, measures 6-feet-1-inch, has sold briskly since Team Obama began to pull ahead in the Democratic primaries. Cutouts of John McCain and Joe Biden are also available, but the big sellers have been the new president and Sarah Palin, the vice presidential nominee on the losing GOP ticket. “It’s been Obama and Sarah Palin the whole time,” said the Advance Graphics rep.

The pace of Obama sales picked up in the weeks preceding last Tuesday’s inauguration, said Scott Bleisath, one of the retailers selling the cutouts. He said he’s gotten orders, “mostly from adults hosting parties. We had quite a few going to government buildings in D.C.”