Please, no more fridge magnets! Why companies spend all that money on useless corporate swag

I’ve picked up lots of corporate swag at conferences and trade shows during my PR days, but free ballpoint pens or cheap fridge magnets can hardly compete with the really good swag that other people seem to get.  Consider for example what was handed out to sports photographers covering the February Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver/Whistler this year: an eye-catching coffee travel mug shaped exactly like a 70-200mm Canon L-series lens. Now that’s a very cool and potentially useful Olympics souvenir to bring home.

Or how about the American Society of Clinical Oncology? The drug company Genentech gave out to each annual meeting attendee in Chicago a beautiful black leather case filled with a wireless mouse, a 1 GB thumb drive, a combination laser-pointer/infrared remote control PowerPoint slide advancer, and a four-outlet USB hub – each one engraved, of course, with the Genentech corporate logo.

Other drug companies use even more creative and arguably more sinister swag strategies: in the waiting rooms of child psychiatrists, for example, children play with giant Lego blocks prominently stamped with the word Risperdal, courtesy of the drug company Johnson & Johnson – who have now lost the patent on the antipsychotic drug and have stopped handing out these toys.

But few promotional gifts can compare with the $91,000 swag bags distributed to celebrities at the Academy Awards ceremonies in Hollywood this past March.   Giveaways at the Oscars included free trips like a $45,000 South African safari trip complete with personal chef, a stay at the Monte Carlo Beach Hotel in Monaco, and a Montana luxury ranch experience.

Sadly, thanks to new tax laws, if celebs chose to keep those bags, they had to pay taxes on the estimated value of the bag. So, instead of getting stuck with a hefty tax bill, most simply donated the gift bags to their favorite charities in exchange for a tax break on the $91,000 worth of swag.

If you own a coffee mug, notepad, T-shirt, baseball cap or any other tangible product that has a company’s name on it, then you have swag, explains Toronto marketing consultant Marc Gordon.

“No one really knows where the term swag came from.  Some say it’s an acronym for ‘some worthless advertising gimmick’ or ‘stuff we all get’, but in its simplest form, swag is simply a term for corporate promotional merchandise.  Companies give out these ‘gifts’ in hopes that we will think of them every time we use these products.”

The promotional products industry is the fastest growing part of the advertising-media sector in Canada at over $4 billion a year in sales.

What makes a good corporate promotional giveaway product?

  • the product needs to match a company’s message with consumer preferences
  • promotional items should be used frequently by the recipient
  • don’t go cheap – quality branded promo gifts are less likely to get trashed

How about the branded Condom-on-a-Keychain that helped spread the word about an Emergency Contraceptive Hotline for a Family Planning Health Service last summer?

Or the Press-It Pill Dispenser distributed at health fairs by a medical alert service?

Consider the card dealership that gave away a promotional glove box utility set to everybody who came in for a test drive – a gift that helped increase their weekend sales by a measurable 4%.

Or how about the customized promotional first aid kits that a hospital began handing out to its patients who had a repeat history of non-emergency visits to their Emergency Department? These kits included useful contact info like Poison Control, Appointment Scheduling, and Ask A Nurse – and resulted in decreased numbers of those non-emergency visits.


The Globe and Mail Report on Business asked its readers last month to share the best and worst of all the free promotional swag they’d ever received.

So as a favour to companies who feel compelled to order personalized giveaways as part of the cost of doing business, I hereby offer you some of what worked – and what you can save your money on from now on – thanks to G&M readers listed by name and occupation:

  • “My favourite was the blanket. It’s warm and it has pockets for my feet”  – Janet, law
  • “I’m so sick of mugs. I have them stacked all over my desk. But the Swiss Army knife I got 10 years ago? Still works!”  – Sarin, IT
  • “You can never have too many golf shirts.”Karl, IT
  • “I received a stainless steel puzzle cube once. I gave it to my daughter, but it was so heavy I’m afraid it will kill her.”  – Thomas, banking
  • “The best gift was the picnic bag. I’ve never used it, but I’ve always wanted one.”  – Richard, law
  • “Mugs, pens, T-shirts and umbrellas all go straight into the bin. Anything with a logo on it, really.”  – Anna, law
  • “The stress balls are crap.”  – Chris, insurance


Do you have a best/worst example of corporate swag?

3 thoughts on “Please, no more fridge magnets! Why companies spend all that money on useless corporate swag

  1. My least favorite: cheap ballpoint pens, or perhaps it’s a tie with T-shirts. My most favorite swag so far: mini-tool kit for the car in a black leather case, very useful and fits right under the driver’s seat.

  2. My worst ever:
    – plastic laminated bookmarks (with corporate logo of course) that were too thick to actually ever use.
    My best ever:
    – my fabulous Roots fleece vest!

  3. Best = leather laptop travel case (with small embossed logo)
    Worst = plastic windshield ice scraper (with big logo) that broke the first time I had to use it

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