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?
Government waste is bad; I don't think anyone would disagree with that. The problem is, these stories call promotional products waste, and make them the bad guy. And those writers think it's a guilt-free bad guy, because waste is always bad, right?
You and I understand it's not waste, of course. Refrigerator magnets with emergency phone numbers aren't a waste. Pens imprinted with helpful government website addresses aren't a waste. But a reader browsing headlines, and seeing "swag," may not know that.
The news also shows a lack of basic understanding regarding the industry. This quote, from a Washington Post blog, says it all: "The swag cutback, unlike what the GOP styles as Obama's 'job-killing' regulations, will have virtually no effect on American jobs. That's because most all of this stuff, even down to our official CIA baseball cap, is made in China."
Even if most all of those products are made in China, which they're not, that mentality ignores the jobs of American distributors, decorators, importers and shippers. It ignores the American marketers who use promotional products to inform, the nonprofits who need them to generate support, and the magazines like this one that focus exclusively on the industry. Tell each of them that the regulation will have no effect on their jobs.
It all betrays a gross misunderstanding of what the promotional marketing industry is, and that misunderstanding is pervasive. Many people think promotional products equals free, and free equals valueless. That's why I think this is an image issue. Audiences focus too much on the physical stuff, which is free, and not on why they are receiving it, which is where the value is found.
Fortunately, one thing this industry knows is getting a message out. From PPAI sending a petition to the president to suppliers and distributors speaking to the press, there's a push back against this misrepresentation. Will it result in Obama reversing his executive order? No. But if it puts a human, American face on the industry, and teaches what promotional products can actually do, then hopefully some benefit can be had. At the very least, maybe we can get people to stop using that bad word.