A Quick History of Promotional Products

When you jaunt back to your office after a triumphant trade show with an iPad full of new contact information, it may be difficult to imagine a world before giveaways like tote bags, water bottles, and umbrellas that made the promotional product industry a booming enterprise. 

However, you also may be surprised to learn this:  the promotional product industry has a storied history that dates back to the founding of America. Take a stroll through history as we discover how promotional products – as we know them today – came to be. 

The Original Promotional Product

While early versions of promotional coins date all the way back to the Roman empire in 300 AD, the first example of a widely-known promotional product (in modern form) was a commemorative button designed for George Washington’s election in 1789. Other presidents like Abraham Lincoln followed suit with the tactic, and branded items like rulers, almanacs, and bookmarks began popping up.  

The Father of Promotional Products

Anheuser-Busch largely pioneered the use of giveaways to generate word-of-mouth marketing when they started giving customers branded corkscrews beginning in 1852. 

Promotional products really took off later that century – thanks to the “Father of Promotional Products” Jasper Meeks. Meeks was a newspaper printer who wanted to keep his presses busy in the off-season, so he began printing burlap bags for local business Cantwell’s Shoes to showcase their marketing messages. The bags were given away to local children, and some of the first promotional product impressions occurred.

Getting Organized

By the 1900s, promotional products were a booming industry. In 1904, 12 representatives from promotional products met and formed a trade association formerly called the Advertising Manufacturers Association. What is now the Promotional Products Association International (PPAI) lobbies for the needs of promotional product manufacturers and publishes PPB Magazine so anyone can stay privy to industry trends.

In 1950, grad student Joe Segel created the Advertising Specialty Institute (ASI) as a resource to find promotional products and suppliers. Today, the organization is just as important as the PPAI, publishing four different magazines and hosting multiple trade shows around the country every year.

Promotional Products of Today

In the last 50 years, promotional product manufacturers and corporations have worked together to refine giveaways providing maximum utility to recipients while getting their message out in unique ways. McDonald’s paved the way for a branding revolution by offering toys in their Happy Meals, which allowed for promotional tie-ins with movies, TV shows, and toy companies. 

Nike put the spotlight on promotional products back in 2004 with its incredibly popular Livestrong campaign. The simple design of their yellow bracelets promoted cancer awareness and was successfully replicated by many charities and non-profits. Just a couple of years ago, fidget spinners exploded onto the scene, and quickly ranked among the most popular promotional items available.

We’ve come a long way since George Washington’s commemorative buttons. Now you can browse our selection of thousands of promotional products to find the right combination for your next campaign. Planning your next promotional marketing push? Connect with your HALO Account Executive now to make your vision a reality. 

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