Counselor Commentary: A Tired Act

Tiresome Political Routine Playing Out In Oklahoma

Dave VagnoniRaise your hand if you’ve heard this one before. A state is facing a revenue shortfall and it needs to recoup some cash. What expenses can be cut? Well now, time to bring in the finance slasher guy. “Oh, look here,” he says, “let’s trim spending on promotional products and then fake outrage over how much this stuff costs. It’s a win-win.”

This tiresome routine is now playing out in Oklahoma, where the governor’s finance secretary recently suggested “swag” costs be chopped. The Sooner State, records show, spent $28.2 million on “advertising, other promotions and events” in the 2014 fiscal year – a number that includes ad specialties. The figure was so big it almost made this finance official’s “head explode,” according to an article in an Oklahoma newspaper. Oh, boy. My short response: Spare me, pal.

First of all, promotional products should not be cast down as useless, unnecessary trinkets when they’re actually one of the most effective forms of advertising that exist today. If you need evidence, click here and check out the latest ASI Ad Impressions study. It shows that ad specialties cost less per impression than TV commercials, radio spots, and print ads, just for starters. Numbers don’t lie.

That said, here’s what our industry needs to understand in this debate. Uneducated officials invoke a powerful populist theme when they criticize promotional products. Many working families in America are still struggling and need to prioritize their spending to get by. When they hear that their state government can save money on logoed pens, mugs, and T-shirts, it strikes a chord and they like the idea. The mistake, though, comes in the messaging, and our industry needs to continue to work to frame the issue better. Frankly, promotional products are comparatively inexpensive, steady and practical. They’re the Toyota Camry of ad media. Big-ticket TV ads are like gas-guzzling GMC Yukons – they look good until you see the real price tag.  

There’s another part to this conversation, of course. If spending on promotional products is so wasteful, why do politicians spend so much each election cycle on bumper stickers, buttons and banners? Yeah, it’s because they work. It’s bothersome, by the way, that reporters covering this issue too often lack the guts to highlight the hypocrisy. Politicians and other public officials shouldn’t be allowed to act like promo products are toys of the devil when it suits them, only to turn around and hand them out when they’re kissing babies in front of cameras.    

Fortunately, the true strength of promotional products isn’t lost on everyone in office. Officials in some states, like Iowa and Florida, have come to more formally value ad specialties –exempting them, for example, from gift bans involving doctors and pharmaceutical companies. How did this happen? Industry members and associations worked hard to listen, inform and educate. The same thing can happen in Oklahoma. The same thing can happen in your state. Absent of industry effort, though, the finance slasher guy will continue to put ad specialties in the crosshairs. And honestly, that’s good for no one.