Enron Kitsch Rakes in Big Bucks on eBay

In the fall, we saw a sudden rush for everything Osama. Bin Laden novelties, from urinal cakes to dart boards to golf balls, sold like hot cakes. But now, in keeping with the ever-more-damning headlines, Enron is fast surpassing "Where's Osama's been Hidin'?" as a theme of the week for memorabilia.

Big money is being spent on gear from the belly of the beast. At the eBay auction site, more than 1300 Enron items are being auctioned at any one time, and they run the logo-emblazoned gamut. Items recently for sale included Enron Suede Executive Coasters, Enron golf balls, Enron squoosh balls with the "Ask Why?" Enron logo, Enron Sterling Silver Tiffany Key Rings, Enron lead crystal paperweights and Enron teddy bears.

The best-selling items on eBay are the ones with jaw-dropping ironic value, like a bound volume of Enron's "Code of Ethics," or the paperweight engraved with Enron's four core values: Respect, Integrity, Communication and Excellence. One high seller, at $315.00, came with this blurb from the seller, "Check out this Enron Smoking Gun! 'Energy Derivatives: Advanced Structures & Marketing.'"

Enron gidgets may not be ready for Sotheby's, but a $315.00 tchatchka is already worth signficantly more than Enron's stock (last valued in cents, not dollars). Some artistically-minded folk have already gone the gallery route. Last week, Reuters reported that a local gallery in downtown Houston was exhibiting Enron "tombstones" -- another word for the feel-good corporate trophies produced to commemorate a big deal -- with appropriately biting curation.

In addition to real Enron paraphenalia, mocked up trinkets like Enron toilet targets are starting to sell on the Web. Of course, when entrepreneurs smell a trend, the first thingy to be churned out is always the old stand-by: the T-Shirt. The easy to silkscreen answer to souvenir-mania is already being produced in force by everyone from Enron ex-employees to young California entrepreneurs.

So far, the leader in the emerging Enron-tee industry is John Allario, a former Enron employee who runs LaydOff.com -- a name that spoofs former Enron chairman and CEO Kenneth Lay.

"Business is pretty damn good," says Allario. "We've sold over 600 shirts, I'm working 15 hours a day to keep up with everything." His site, he says, is getting upwards of 10,000 hits a week. And he's being inundated with free press, from a Fox News Live appearance to numerous CNN spots to a couple dozen articles (including this one).

"Active Angry Wear," as Allario calls it, tends to sport an "I got Lay'd by Enron" logo on the front, and ironic commentary on the back, like a play on the popular Master Card commercials:

Loss of job
Watching 401(k) disappear
Losses on company stock options
Ten years hard time for guilty executives

LaydOff.com even includes a shirt for those suffering from the K-Mart bankruptcy. (For more T-shirts and sites for ex-Enron employees, also try Enronx.com.)

While first aimed at ex-Enron workers who wanted to express their feelings, Allario says the shirts are starting to reach a wider market. "It's morphing into more a cult thing," he says. "Everybody hears about this damn Enron, and it's kind of like ... OJ. You want OJ on your shirt. It's cocktail party conversation. Enron brings out every business issue that's bad with America."

For others just getting into the Enron T-shirt game, Enron's appeal is proving to be nationwide. "My business partner's mother is a teacher in California. Obviously, her state pension fund had a lot of Enron holdings, and it really affected her," says Chris Haig, the 22-year-old co-founder of Pimp Daddy Shirts, a new boutique clothing maker out to provide an alternative to Nike, Gap and "big business philosophy." Pimp Daddy's Enron shirt replaces the word "Enron" in Enron's now famous original logo with the word "evil." They say they have customers from both coasts buying 20-30 shirts a week, including a large number of senior level personnel in big companies, investment bankers, and even a group of orders from Reliant Energy in Houston, an Enron rival.

"We chose 'evil' because we thought it was the best word to tie up the whole scenario," Haig says. And it doesn't look bad on the originally Enron logo, either. As one independent Web designer put it, "Whoever designed the Enron logo is so, so bummed."

Indeed, the "crooked E" now seems almost eerily fit for tweaking and teasing. One Web site and newsletter called Viridian Design launched a contest for an Enron logo re-design. The winner is a 57-year-old retired government worker in Florida who says he's gotten wrapped up in following the scandal ever since he realized that state's retirement fund was invested in the company. "Look what the Enron scandal has so far," says Jim Vandewalker, "big money, death ... there's no sex yet, but it's gotta be in there somewhere." Vandewalker's new logo "has all the colors running out, just like the juice running out of Enron."

So far, the enraged re-designs and angry schlock have focused on the Enron logo. But as the scandal unfolds, if I were Kenneth Lay, Jeff Skilling or Andrew Fastow, I'd be guarding my trash and keeping an eye out for voodoo dolls.

Michelle Chihara is a staff writer and editor at AlterNet.org.


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