I feel like a living billboard and no one is paying me…
Commonly referred to as swag, promotional products have infiltrated my life. Companies seem to love printing their logo on generic products like pens, cell phone accessories, koozies, hats, bags, thumb drives… you name it. They hand them out everywhere, always trying to give them away so their brand can become part of my daily life and it seems like people can’t get enough.
Going to the beach? Don’t forget that Rockstar Energy Drink hat a rep gave you at Coachella last year and those Bank of America sunglasses you got when you dropped in to make a deposit. Grab a cold beer from that free Miller Light cooler you picked up at the ballgame, and don’t forget to bring the Geico koozie they gave out at the car show.
A little bit about the promotional products industry
ASI Central, the promotional product industry’s largest membership organization boasts that promotional products are a $22.2 billion industry. The industry, made up of suppliers and distributors, is so big there are conventions and online platforms to connect the two. Suppliers source the blank promotional products from manufacturers; distributors take small batch orders from businesses, customize the promotional products, and deliver them to their clients.
While certainly a popular marketing technique today, promotional products date as far back as 1789 when commemorative buttons were first used. But the movement really gained momentum in the late 1800’s when a newspaper owner, Jasper Meek, started giving out branded hand bags to school children for their books. The marketing message was blatant, “Buy Cantwell Shoes”. Sales increased, brands quickly realized the value, and soon large companies such as Coca-Cola joined the rush.
Today, the industry is running stronger than ever. Globalization has made it unbelievably cheap to source promotional products from overseas so just about anyone can join in on the bonanza. And they do. I even received a bag of swag from my dentist the last time I went in for a cleaning…
The (negative) impact of swag and getting past it
If you want to see the impact of the promotional product industry on clear display, head to a sporting event. The last few games I attended were prime examples.
At the Gulls game they gave out a free hat; the Bruins game it was a plastic hand; the Padres, a towel. At every entrance the excitement of an unexpected gift was beaming from the faces of attendees, but at the end of every game swag cast its shadow over the stadium, littering the rows and walkways.
In a span of hours you can see the full life cycle of promotional products. An event-goer is enticed by a free product, sports it for a short period of time, then loses interest and disposes of it. Cradle to grave. These products are made to be disposed of and are simply a cheap investment with a potential for huge rewards for a brand.
These seemingly free products have an impact on the way we feel too.
Have a free pen, have a free hat, have a free this, have a free that. But, all this free stuff takes its toll. Obviously the environmental impact of all this producing and throwing away is terrible, but what about the price we pay as recipients?
Once I accept a promotional product I’m a walking advertisement. I’m a brand advocate just because someone handed me a free piece of swag. But that’s not me. I’m selective about the things I buy and the types of companies I support.
I support brands that are responsible, brands that are conscious about their social and environmental impact, not brands that use cheap marketing tactics to drive sales. So when I accept a free piece of swag I’m contradicting my personal beliefs.
Nothing causes more stress than dissonance between your beliefs and your actions – when what you’re doing on the outside is incongruent with what you believe on the inside, stress builds up.
That’s why I deny promotional products and I feel good about it. For the last two years I’ve been denying swag and I’ve been pretty surprised at the reactions. Really? It’s free… you don’t want it?
The social awkwardness is by far trumped by my resulting peace of mind. I don’t miss the empty feeling I used to get when I reached that inevitable moment of throwing the giveaway in the trash – or even worse, leaving it on the ground of the stadium. I’m no longer an advocate for a brand I either don’t support or know nothing about. Most importantly, I’m taking a stand to show that swag has gone too far and I’m not going to perpetuate its effectiveness as a cheap marketing tactic.
When we stop accepting promotional products we prevent ourselves from becoming walking advertisements for brands and promotional products lose their value. I live swag free and I’m happier because of it.