When Navy Seal Team 6 paid a call on Osama bin Laden back on May 2, within hours street hawkers in New York and websites like eBay were doing a brisk business selling tasteless but amusing mementos like souvenir coins reading “Osama bin Laden Hunting Expedition 2011.” And in June, when Congressman Anthony Weiner’s career went flaccid over his fleshy photos that somehow found their way to that female undergrad’s email account, the tsotchke machine was up and running again, cranking out posters and Ts with zingers like “A Bigger Weiner Than Dick Nixon” and “Don’t Tweet Your Meat.”
There’s just no avoiding it. When you combine a free market economy with a society that relishes any media event that’s even the least bit shocking, the invariable fallout is a surge of business for retail’s shadow market, which can always make a few bucks on Americans’ insatiable desire to own a piece of the prurient headlines.
So when Rupert Murdoch found himself turning on a parliamentary spit this past week, it was no surprise that the seamy souvenir makers sprang into action again. But this time, something was different. The hoped-for stampede of Rupert Ravers never quite materialized.
Exhibit 1: The final edition of Murdoch’s News of the World, which published on July 10. At press time, eBay had 32 copies for sale—and all of two bidders. The highest offer stood at $8.13; the other guy's best offer was $1.61. (C'mon guys, these papers were in mint condition!) Nearby, a genuine autographed photo of Murdoch was selling for 100 bucks. No takers. (eBay did not respond to a request for comment.)
Murdoch merch isn’t moving very well over at gag retailer Zazzle.com, either, which is currently selling an apron that reads “I’m Grilling the Murdochs” and a “News Corp. Hacked My Phone” shirt. “The items appeared fast and furious,” said vp of marketing Jason Kang. “However, Rupert Murdoch isn’t something that translates well into being a hot consumer item.” Why not? “When bin Laden got taken care of, people felt enormous pride,” Kang explained. “The Murdoch thing is funny, but doesn’t engender the same emotional response.”
Even at pop culture gift giant CafePress, nobody wanted a little something to remember Rupert by, though the prices were tough to beat. Eleven bucks buys you a Rupert Murdoch notebook. A T-shirt that reads “Without News of the World, where can I read my phone messages?” has been reduced from $24 to $15. Still, no orders. “The recent news around Rupert Murdoch has caused barely a blip,” lamented PR manager Marc Cowlin. The scandal, he ventured, “is interesting—just not in a T-shirt or merchandise sort of way.”
Well, if the souvenir hunters don’t want a piece of Rupert, perhaps the rest of corporate America might. Culture blog Cleveredfool.com has produced a stirring series of corporate motivational posters—just print ’em out and hang ’em up!—featuring Murdoch’s smiling face. Among the inspirational sayings: “When in doubt . . . Destroy lives.”