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Classic Promotional Products

The Classics
By Matt Histand

Ten imprinted items that have literally stood the test of time and made their way into the pantheon of promotional products standards.

The sheer variety of imprintable products available today means they can fit nearly any promotional objective. Size, shape, color, price - the choices are endless. Yet there's a core group of items that have remained perennial bestsellers, year after year, for decades. The things you instantly think of when you hear "promotional product." In short, they're classics; the medium's version of a '32 Duesenberg or Fender Stratocaster. Why? They are, were, and always will be useful on a near-everyday basis.

Still, selecting the top 10 was tough. After much deliberation, some loose criteria were created: First, the products had to have been around for at least 25 years. Mousepads may be classics one day, but not yet. Second, they had to be easily identifiable. And third, they had to be found in nearly every home in America. Yours, ours, everyone's.

Over the next several pages, you'll discover which 10 items made the grade. No doubt 20 or 30 would have been more interesting, but by limiting it to 10, these products leave no question of their importance in promotional products' history and future.

Consider creating a classic campaign using one (or more) of these products for a promotion of historical proportions.

The Tote Bag
The first true promotional product. After seeing a child drop his schoolbooks in the mud, inspiration hit Ohio businessman Jasper Meek. Using his newspaper press, he imprinted burlap bags with the names of local businesses. He sold the bags to them, explaining that they should give the bags away to kids, who would carry them to and from school, all the while advertising the merchants' businesses. While ad messages on items may have predated Meek, he's credited with pioneering the marketing and distribution strategy that launched a $16 billion industry. To this day, tote bags are still the logoed item of choice for carrying materials, personal items, and samples at trade shows.

The Calendar
The earliest known modern calendars were in the 1850s. Over 150 years later, they remain one of the biggest-selling promotional products. Initially, calendars were black-and-white, year-at-a-glance wall styles. The 20th century brought full-color art with multi-page pads displaying a new month on each one. By 1910, they were being produced with blank stock and pads for imprinting. By the 1950s, one of the biggest calendar firms in the world was Brown & Bigelow, who at the time shocked people by paying then-unheard-of sums for exclusive rights to artwork and images. Today, calendars are embedded in our collective consciousness and have become icons of pop culture. Think Elvgren pin-ups or Norman Rockwell.

The Keytag
The first keytags, known then as "key fobs," can be traced to the late 1800s. They were simple and unglamorous, made from metal and/or leather. In the 1920s, embossed brass keytags appeared, but it wasn't until the late 1930s, with the expansion of plastic injection molding, that the true keytag revolution began. The process made unique shapes and designs not only easy to produce, but inexpensive as well. Imprinted keytags are so ubiquitous today, many go their whole lives without ever buying one at retail.

The Mug
Aside from pens, you'd be hard-pressed to find a more often-used product than this. Logoed mugs were introduced in the mid-1950s and today come in glass, crystal, plastic, china, stainless steel and, of course, ceramic. They remain a promotional stalwart. Mugs are landmarks on the desktops of corporate America, possibly the most valuable advertising real estate there is. Think about it; when was the last time you went into any office without seeing one? And how many imprinted mugs are crammed into your cupboard at home?

The Ruler
With all today's high-tech devices, the simple ruler is a promotional products staple. Its longevity is amazing; the earliest examples go back to the late 1800s. Back then, rulers were longer and thicker than today and imprinted with hot type for an embossed or branded look. They were also coated with a lacquer that caused them to turn yellow as they aged, explaining that familiar color. Whether in a student's backpack or office desk, rulers remain handy for measuring and low-tech ad appeal.

The Matchbook
There was once a time when matches were a requirement for daily life. The light bulb was still a relatively new invention, and most homes relied on gas lights, lanterns and candles. The matchbook as we recognize it was invented in 1892. By 1895, they were being used to hype an upcoming New York performance by the Mendelson Opera Co. Buying several boxes of blanks, the opera pasted photos and messages on them - the first documented use of an imprinted matchbook. Since then, several changes have occurred, most notably moving the striker to the back. Today, despite the reduced number of smokers (and gas illumination), matchbooks can still be found advertising businesses and organizations of all kinds. And with the recent resurgence of "lounge" culture, bars and restaurants are again buying them by the case.

The T-shirt
T-shirts were first adopted by the Navy shortly after World War I to be worn under its V-neck uniforms. In the 1930s and '40s, it was considered strictly an undergarment. It wasn't until the early '50s that the T-shirt came into its own. Helping break tradition was the one-two punch of Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire and James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause. Both actors wore a simple white T-shirt that instantly pulled it into the mainstream. Promotional products opened the floodgates completely in the 1960s by bringing "message" T-shirt to a much broader audience. Who would have guessed that, three decades later, T-shirts would be the single biggest-selling imprinted product?

The Magnet
It's probably safe to say that nearly every refrigerator in the country sports at least one promotional magnet. Actually, it's probably closer to five or 10. While imprinted magnets have been around since the 1970s, it's only in the last decade and a half that they've become a promotional powerhouse. New manufacturing and imprinting techniques have allowed an endless array of shapes and sizes. Magnets today can have full-color photo-realistic reproduction, be thin enough to be sent through the mail, bear holographic images, be custom-cut from transparent vinyl or made to glow in the dark. Why so hot? They're right there every time you need the phone number of the plumber, pizza place or vet.

The Cap
Long before Tommy Hilfiger, Ralph Lauren and Perry Ellis made them fashion staples, baseball-style caps were getting the job done. They started with professional sports teams, but soon made their way to farmers ("gimmie cap" is part of the vernacular), little leaguers, painters and hunters. In the mid-'80s, imprinting technology improved, but more important, logoed caps were "discovered" by fashion designers, followed closely by professional athletes, singers and actors, who began wearing them as a sign of casual cool. Now they're an integral part of every corporate casual and company store program.

The Pen
The imprinted pen. Not only does every household have at least one in a handy spot, but most have dozens more stashed in drawers, desks and tool boxes, not to mention jacket/coat pockets and car glove compartments. They originally became a popular ad vehicle because they're useful and inexpensive, and that's still the case. First it was fountain pens. Ballpoints showed up in 1948. By the mid-'60s, pens were already promotional standards. The most recent trends have included a brief return to the fountain pen, then high-end and ergonomic models. Constant change and innovation has kept them a favorite for over 50 years. That, and the fact that it's nearly impossible to go through a day without using one.

COPYRIGHT © 2002 The Advertising Specialty Institute. All rights reserved.
Matt Histand is associate editor of Imprint.

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