Why Don't Government Officials Understand Promotional Products?

When faced with budget deficits, local leaders resort to a tired argument about the value of promotional products. It’s time this industry fought back.

Raise 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, of course.

“Oh, look here,”he says, “let’s trim spending on promotional products and then file over-the-top complaints over how much this stuff costs. It’s a win-win.”

This tiresome routine most recently played out in Oklahoma, where the governor’s finance secretary suggested in March that “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. Please. The fake outrage is simply ridiculous and, ultimately, extremely misguided.

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 statistical evidence, go to and check out the data from the latest ASI Ad Specialties Impressions study. It shows that promotional products cost less per impression than TV commercials, radio spots and print ads, just for starters.

Plus, there are the thousands of companies every day that put promotional products to good use by implementing them in marketing campaigns, product launches, trade shows, job fairs, fundraisers and employee welcome packages. If they’re so wasteful, as this Oklahoma politician claimed with such false indignation, then why would companies, schools and nonprofits buy them so regularly?

Answer: They wouldn’t, of course.

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.

“Promotional products should not be cast down as unnecessary trinkets when they’re actually one of the most effective forms of advertising.”

The mistake, though, comes in the messaging, and companies in this industry need 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 – the hypocritical part coming straight from the mouths of these same local leaders. If spending on promotional products is so wasteful, why do politicians spend so much each election cycle on bumper stickers, buttons and banners? It’s because they work.

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 guy without a hint of a conscience at all will continue to put ad specialties in the crosshairs – and yet, probably use them in his next campaign. And honestly, that’s good for no one.

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