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 Amazon.com 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.”
None of the sellers I spoke with had any idea they were hawking a two-tone President Obama. I myself planted a juicy photographed kiss on “Barack” at The Root Inaugural Ball before realizing the error.
Bleisath, of specialty retailer S.A.B., was sheepish when he took a close look at the hands. “This is the first that I’ve heard of it actually,” he said. Campbell, of the A. Boyd Company, added, “I haven’t had anybody notice.” Ofir Zahavi, owner of a Los Angeles boutique specializing in celebrity cutouts and other entertainment memorabilia, said he, too, failed to realize that the hands on the cutout are too white for our black prez. “I would like to take the fifth on that,” he said.
Most of these companies, however, sell realistic full-length images of dozens of other politicians, even going back to 1992-era Bill and Hillary Clinton (a more recent version of the latter cutout made the news back in December after an Obama staffer was caught groping it).
So why not take the time to find a black body for Barack? “I think it may have been sloppy,” says Campbell. “That’s just a stock image, a stock body that they had.” Again, Advance Graphics declined to give a direct answer. Apparently, finding a generic photograph of a black man in a suit was too much to handle out in Utah. The Root’s attempts to figure out who might be the source body proved fruitless. Though we suspect it could be Health and Human Services Secretary and former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle, who wears glasses rather like the ones cutout Obama is holding. Late on Friday, after repeated questioning from The Root, Advance Graphics hastily added a clearly black Barack—with and without podium—to its Web site, promising that the properly tinted cutouts are “Coming Soon.”
White hands or not, Obama’s brown cardboard head with megawatt smile seems to have nearly the same star power as the real prez. The Associated Press reported the two-dimensional president bringing cheer to a New Jersey funeral home. One Amazon review praised the cutout for thrilling seniors at an assisted living facility: “Women changed their wigs, and men took off their oxygen masks just to have a nice picture with the cutout,” the buyer wrote. In Troy, N.Y., the stand-up won over customers at a self-described "working class bar"—prompting one local writer to ask: “Who says Obama has a problem with blue collar voters?”
Not all encounters have been fun-loving. In the ugly weeks before the general election, a group of students in Oregon hung an Obama cutout in effigy from a tree. But most public gatherings around the cutout have been exceedingly celebratory. On Inauguration Day in Trafalgar Square in London, Obama lovers, “from Ramsgate, Romania, Australia and Eritrea, China, Vietnam and the U.S.,” fawned over the cutout, according to British newspaper The Guardian, which reported that onlookers “are united by their delighted response to Obama: They point, they kiss, they hug, they look up at his cutout face with an expression of awe and admiration, they stand beside him throwing a variety of poses, from the peace sign to the good ol' thumbs up. ‘I want him!’ cries one lady, clutching his cardboard arm. ‘Give him to me!’ ”
Relax. He’s ours. In cardboard and in real life.
But what to do with the hundreds of white-handed Obamas traveling the global party circuit? Que sera, sera. We know the real deal. One excited Amazon customer wrote last week that, while he was unsure about what he would do with the cutout after his planned inauguration watch party, he was comforted by the new, steady hands at the nation’s helm. Yes. Black hands.
Dayo Olopade is a Washington reporter for The Root.
Covers the White House and Washington for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.