As thousands raced to social media to turn Mitt Romney’s Big Bird jab into a political point for their party or candidate, two UNC-Chapel Hill students decided to use it to make money for charity.
Andrew Royce Bauer had been watching the presidential debate between Romney and President Barack Obama when he heard Romney say he would stop the federal subsidy for the Public Broadcasting Service, invoking the name of Sesame Street’s star, Big Bird. As he watched Twitter start to light up with comments, jokes and politicized chatter – insert Big Bird Tweet joke here – he immediately knew the remark would have legs longer than those of the yellow-feathered mascot.
“I’m not really politically affiliated, but I realized that a presidential candidate attacking a childhood hero would be something trending globally,” Bauer, 19, said Saturday. “I realized we could really do something with this gaffe.”
The freshman business student from Neptune, N.J. immediately contacted his friend and partner, fellow freshman Taylor Robinette. In three minutes, Bauer bought FireBigBird.com from GoDaddy before running to Robinette’s room.
The pair worked into the night, Robinette, 18, designing a couple of Big Bird gaffe T-shirts on PhotoShop. One had Obama’s red and blue “Hope” logo with Big Bird’s face replacing the president’s. Another had Big Bird slouched on the ground next to a donation box with a piece of cardboard in his hand reading “Romney just fired my (butt).” The site went live around 11:30 p.m. the night of the debate.
Initially, they hoped to make a few bucks.
“We realized this political gaffe was bigger than us,” Bauer said, “this was bigger than our little money-making business.”
Every dollar of profit from their efforts will benefit charity, they said, primarily the Make-a-Wish Foundation. More than 100 of the $20 shirts were sold in just over two days. They’ve had the likes of former-Tar Heel and NBA player Rick Fox re-tweet their handle @ObamaforBigBird, and FireBigBird had garnered 20,000 web hits as of early Saturday afternoon.
Operatives from both parties have politicized the issue. Romney and the right note that federal funding only accounts for 11 percent of PBS funding and that the station could live without it. The left argues that cutting off PBS’s educational programming wouldn’t even scratch the paint on the deficit.
Robinette and Bauer, meanwhile, say they just want to use the furor to help people.
“Everyone has their own political viewpoints and agendas,” Bauer said. “The main issue for us was helping people.”
Bauer said he thought some of Romney’s campaign statements show a disconnect with average Americans. Robinette said he’s not sure who he will vote for at this point, but said he’d pick the candidate he thinks will do the better job and is the better person.
This isn’t the pair’s first T-shirt-for-charity scheme. As part of a business class, they sold 100 UNC basketball shirts in two days, raising $500 and making a child with leukemia’s Make-A-Wish dream of creating his own transformer toy come true.
“It was the best feeling in the world to be able to do that,” Robinette said.
Their entrepreneurial spirit started before they got to Chapel Hill. Bauer arrived on campus as an Innovation Scholar, on a full merit scholarship, who was active in his hometown.
Robinette, from Westminster, Md., started returnproject.org, in which people can return Christmas gifts to charity rather than for refunds. The gifts are sold to retailers and the proceeds go to Blood Water Mission, which works to provide clean water in Africa.
He came up with the idea when some key stats caught his eye, he said: $450 billion spent on Christmas gifts in the U.S., $40 billion in returned merchandise, and $10 billion to provide clean water to all of Africa for a year. He’s also working to innovate in social media, trying to help them enhance social lives rather than isolate people.
Now they’re focused on expanding the site. They’ve ordered 100 more of each shirt – the cardboard sign shirt sold out already – and are accepting designs from fans for new ones. They are also holding drawings for free shirts, with each like, tweet and share resulting in increased chances for followers to win.
“We’re not hating on Romney or supporting Obama; we’re just trying to show that UNC encourages motivated people to make this kind of impact,” Bauer said.