FREAK-TV: Ill-Conceived Promotional Merchandise


It is important to never underestimate the power of free — of free anything, it seems. I have been to conferences where the typical attendee makes at least low six figures and yet is willing to stand in line to get his schwag bag. What’s in it? Some suntan lotion, a paperweight, boutique vinegar — it doesn’t really matter. If it’s free, people want it.

That would help explain some of the promotional items featured in this new FREAK-TV video by Nick Graham. I would give anything for that phone throne.


And thats exactly why I signed up for that free Freakonomics bookmark signed by SDL and SJD.


As a loyal reader of the blog and an Executive at a Promotional Products Agency, I am offended by the video. Mr. Graham does a poor job representing what the industry is truly about.

Promotional Products is an $18 Billion dollar industry that is taking significant marketing dollars from other forms of promotion. This is not by accident.

If Mr. Graham would like to learn more about how promotional products inform, excite and motivate individuals to react, please give me a call.


(Some thoughts on free stuff)
Economically, free is always a really bad idea. Why? I can illustrate it with a simple equation. If...

net value to the individual = benefit - cost

...and cost in money terms is zero then the benefit can be really really small, but there is still a positive net value, so folks will still go for the freebies. Governments should never forget this, but conversely I don't think they really get this idea.

Another interesting facet of social behavior that is revealed in free stuff (and implied by Stephen's blog entry) is how poorly people value their time and comfort, because...

cost = $ + time (or opportunity costs) + annoyance level

Tony Hughes

That clapper's not patriotic - it's for an Australian football team:


I think poster 2 may be a little personally invested, but I have to agree to some extent. Having worked with a number of healthcare companies recently, I've realized that a large percentage of staff in doctors' offices have been conditioned to ignore you unless you can give them a cookie, pen, note pad, letter opener, or other semi-useful piece of minor schwag. Probably not a rational phenomenon from an economics perspective, but it's out there. I assume it's at play in various other industries.

Anyone care to comment on where the term comes from? I'm stumped.



Perhaps it is because giving them something is paying attention to them. Is saying "I know you matter in this office I am focusing on you and seeing you as a human being not a person-shaped doorbell".


>> Anyone care to comment
>> on where the term comes
>> from? I'm stumped.

You mean schwag?

I've always assumed it's a cutesy corruption of "swag", stuff a pirate might take, you know, like booty, loot, spoils. Like 'schweet' for 'sweet'.

I first heard it as the stuff you 'capture' from trade shows, then it became used for any promo giveaway.


@Greg: "Anyone care to comment on where the term comes from? I'm stumped."

I always thought it was "swag"... "schwag" is a slang term for material of low quality, although I guess that could be applied to some promotional items too. Michael Scott explained it as "Stuff We All Get".


I have given up on ever getting my signed book cover. 3 requests, nothing.

Mike S

Famous words:

"If its free, its for me"



#2 (AL):
Relax. If you can't find humor in a plastic "phone throne," you need a vacation.

Also, foam squeeze-toys in the shape of ANYTHING is awesome. Just my personal opinion.


Were those really his first reactions? Because then he's way more clever than I am.

Also, I used to love free stuff, but I rarely bother any more. I have too much crap as it is.


As a loyal reader of the blog and a person who is sick of Made in China plastic junk being pushed as objects that "inform and excite people", I am offended by Poster #2, The Thin-Skinned Executive.

I think getting free junk really calls back to our hunter-gatherer roots. Getting something for nothing is always regarded as better than getting something by hunting it down and killing it.


As a sometimes-consumer of promotional products like this, I know exactly what you mean. I got some truly inspired crap at a recent trade show and it still clutters my desk because I'm somehow afraid to throw it out. I kid you not, I'm still staring in horror at my combination flashlight/world clock.

One happy story is a friend of mine gave out ice scrapers to promote a beach resort at a trade show. This being the southeast, most people don't have ice scrapers, so people just tossed them in their cars and forgot about them. Six months later, she was flooded with calls: they all said "wouldn't you rather be in (beach resort name) right now?"

To AL The Irate Marketing Exec: I don't see what your beef is. If this isn't typical, then we laugh and move on. If it is, then it's even better for you. It means that your tchotchke need only be barely adequate to have a real advantage over your competitors.

Since I have you here, AL, could you do something about those pens? With maybe two exceptions, all the promotional pens I've ever gotten have fallen apart or leaked within 2 days of getting them.


Jay Lake

My favorite piece of ill-conceived swag, ever, was a soft-sided briefcase with a Viagra logo on it.


"The petty economies of the rich are just as amazing as the silly extravagances of the poor."

-- William Feather


When I started being able to resist free product giveaways, I thought triumphantly that it was a marker of adulthood.

Now I wonder if maybe it was just me. Come on, guys.


I am offended by Alabama's (2) comment that Mr. Graham should "give him a call" if he has questions about the promotional products industry but then doesn't leave a phone number. How should he call you? - that's offensive.

I'm also offended by HeatherLyn's "Thin Skinned Executive" remark. As a thin skinned executive, I find such labels unconstructive and, well, offensive.

Also, can we stop referring to the schwag as "crap"? Besides being offensive, some of that free junk looks like good stuff.

AND as Alabama shrewdly points out, these promotional items are given away to motivate, inform and excite people about products and services that enhance their lives. To call the multi-billion dollar promotional product industry The Free Crap and Clutter People is offensive.

It's also offensive to me that Irritated Cat (11) thinks anything made out of foam is awesome. It is not. A foam model of a promotional marketing executive is far from awesome. It's offensive.



I love to throw things away and take free promotional items solely for the pleasure of trashing them later. I look at it as my own private version of natural selection: only those items with superior characteristics survive.

Also, years ago there was a "Pinky and the Brain" episode where, in an ill-conceived plan to take over the world, Brain grew a clone of Earth. His idea was to convince all humans to move from our home planet to his new creation. His method of coercion? Free t-shirts available on Chia-Earth. Suffice to say it worked all too well.

Malleigh I have to buy the clippers separately or not?