Promotional Marketing’s Four-Letter Word

We have a problem. The promotional products industry has been haunted by it for years, and it’s only getting worse. It’s an image issue, one that marketers and branders have been unable to shake because it’s become inextricably attached to a demeaning epithet. And that phrase has become synonymous with our industry, for the worse. It’s our four-letter word.


I couldn’t tell you when that word came to gain its current meaning, but it was well before my entrance into the industry. Working in a newsroom in the early 2000s, I first heard it referencing the giveaways you’d receive at press junkets. Everyone was happy to get those freebees (what writer doesn’t want a new pen?), but “swag” still had a derisive connotation. The word is practically sneering. It diminished what otherwise would have been enjoyed.

What brings this to mind is, of course, last week’s executive order requiring federal agencies to cut promotional products spending by 20 percent. Although the actual statement issued by the White House never mentions it, nearly every headline included, if not focused on, “swag.” It didn’t matter that the executive order required spending be cut in four other areas, or that those other areas were listed before promotional items. Look the news up on Google, and you’ll find headline after headline about Obama killing swag.

Why? Because “swag” is a bad word. Swag means cheap, disposable, excessive and unnecessary. To the public, swag means junk. It tells the reader that the government is cutting spending on junk, and the reader likes to hear that. The story would have had a different spin if it said “educational materials” instead.

The White House’s official statement on the executive order, titled “Promoting Efficient Spending,” doesn’t help. While it may not use the four-letter word, their phrasing is nearly as bad: “Extraneous Promotional Items.” Who is going to read that and think promotions are anything but extraneous?

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