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There Were Really George Washington Promotional Products?

3/26/2021 | Steve Woodburn, The Only Constant is Change

"A generation which ignores history has no past and no future.” Robert Heinlein

After 35 years in the promotional products industry, I’ve heard the products we sell called everything from trinkets and trash to tchotchkes (pronounced choch keys), swag, novelties, promo, knick knacks, gadgets, doodads and promo. Many truly think of what we sell as junk and, if we’re honest, probably a lot of it is. 

The thing is, if promo products are sold as a way to increase engagement in a tangible way, they can be demonstrably effective. All advertising is looking for ways to gain more eyes and promo products have a lower cost per impression than newspaper, prime-time TV and magazine ads. Dozens of studies over the years have shown promotional products to be a powerful way to get a message across and yet, it’s still treated as a red-headed stepchild within the world of advertising.

Sometimes understanding where we have come from can aid in understanding where we may be headed. If you’re new to this trade or have no clue as to the origins of this powerful medium, let’s step back in time to look at some of the first promotional products to help us discern why it’s such an impressive form of advertising.

All Buttoned Up: The first documented use of a promotional product in North America was, wouldn’t you know it, in politics. A commemorative button was created in 1789 to celebrate the inauguration of George Washington as our first President. The button featured a “GW” and the words, “Long Live the President” in a variety of patterns. The first buttons used in a political campaign were to promote Andrew Jackson as the seventh President of the United States in 1829. Fun fact: It’s estimated political campaigns spend up to 10% of their ad dollars on promo products including bumper stickers, buttons, pens, pins and signage.

Got Wood? In 1807, The American Manufacturing Concern was founded near Jamestown, NY and began creating rulers, yardsticks, cribbage boards, paint stirrers and paper weights. At some point, they began selling these products to companies who had their names branded on the items to be  handed out as  useful reminders of the company. Fun fact: a Study by PPAI in 2016 found 85% of promotional product recipients did business with a company after being given one of their promo items.

It’s in the Bag In 1875, Jasper Meek, a newspaper owner in Coshocton, OH was inspired when he saw a boy drop his school books in the dirt. He took a burlap bag, sewed a shoulder strap on it and printed the name of a local shoe store on one side. Meek convinced the shoe store owner local customers would flock to his store when they heard he was giving out free bags and apparently they did. And hopefully bought some shoes as well! Fun fact: Bags are the fourth highest searched item when it comes to promotional products and come in a variety of styles and sizes.

Let’s Make a Date: Promotional calendars got their start in the mid-1800’s and despite the advent of smartphones and calendar apps, are still a huge business opportunity. Go to any retail store at the end of the year and you’ll see racks of pictorial calendars for sale. In the promo world, custom calendars tend to repeat year after year and offer businesses a way to keep their name in front of customers 365 days a year. Fun fact: Studies show 98% of Americans have at least one printed calendar in their home with the most likely place being the kitchen. 

That’s a Match: The first known advertising on matchbooks took place around 1895 when cast members of the Mendelson Opera Company pasted photos and wrote sayings on blank matchbooks. By the mid-1930’s, promotional matchbooks were being given out by the tens of millions due to the abundance of smoking in the U.S., especially in restaurants and bars. With the proliferation of Zippo lighters and anti-smoking campaigns, matchbooks aren't nearly as popular, but have made somewhat of a nostalgic comeback in recent years. Fun fact: Matchbook collecting was so popular at one time it was given the name phillumenism, a combination of the Greek word phil (loving) and the Latin word lumen (light).

You might also be surprised to hear many of the business names you hear thrown around in our industry have been around for over 100 years. Names like Geiger (started in 1878), Brown & Bigelow (1896), The Vernon Company (1902), Newton Manufacturing (1909), Souvenir (1908), Morco (1921) and Vitronic (1913). 

While many call this the “ASI” business, that company wasn’t formed until 1950 by Joseph Segal who created a paper directory of all the suppliers who sold promotional products. The first trade association, the forerunner to today’s PPAI, began in 1904 in Chicago with just 12 members. 

So how big is this vocation we call home? Pre-Covid, PPAI estimated sales at $21 billion. Post-Covid though, depending on who you ask, the guesstimate is $15 - $17 billion. Close to 140,000 people claim this as their livelihood, the majority being in sales while working with some 39,000 entities. 

Our world and this industry have changed in nearly unbelievable ways since the first promotional items were created for President Number One. What makes our work unique and fascinating are the ideas being continually brought to life to engage all five senses of the recipients. Understanding what came before us will help ensure we can more clearly see the future. Or as the famous “philosopher” and baseball great Yogi Berra said, “You’ve got to be very careful if you don’t know where you are going, because you might not get there.”

Steve Woodburn started hustling early in life, landing his first on-air radio gig when he was just 20 and spending the next 20 years as a DJ, news anchor, talk show host and traffic reporter. He found the promotional products business totally by accident (as do most) working 29 years on the distributor side and five as a supplier. Steve won multiple sales awards along the way and volunteered his time with his local association, the Regional Association Council (RAC) and served on the PPAI Board of Directors. He's currently the Chief Adventurer of Marvelous Moosey Adventures, a company he and his wife created, and pursues acting, writing and voice-over work. Connect with Steve on Linkedin or via email at successnow09@gmail.com
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