Promo Products Past, Present, and Future

Pens, wristbands, apparel, buttons – if an item can have a name or logo printed on it, chances are someone has used it to advertise their business, promote an event, or raise funds for a charity or school.

These are called promotional products (or promotional items, promo products, or even “swag”), and they’re an incredibly popular and effective form of advertising. Promo products have been around in some form since the late 18th century and, as of 2016, have grown into a $22.9 billion industry.

Promo products have a long history and aren’t going anywhere any time soon. Let’s take a look at the history of promo products, how they’re used today, and where they may be going from here.


One of the first recorded examples of promotional products are commemorative buttons for U.S. president George Washington in the late 1700s. According to a 2009 article in the Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania newspaper, The Pocono Record, the buttons were expensive, often costing buyers “about six months’ salary.” Even today, as historical collectibles, the buttons are valued around $7,500 each.

While there are other instances of promo products after the buttons, the industry didn’t really start to take off until Jasper Meek, owner of a small newspaper in Coshocton, Ohio, showed up on the scene.

A promotional parking disc for Swedish bank UBS in the early 1970s. Photo Credit: Etan Tal

Creative Beginnings

Considered by many to be the unofficial founder of the promo product industry, Meek often took on other print jobs in between editions of the newspaper. The story goes that after seeing a young girl drop her schoolbooks in the dirt, Meek had the idea to print burlap bags with an advertising message for a local business, Cantwell Shoes. Featuring the message “Buy Cantwell Shoes”, Meek gave a bag to any children who came into his shop, and before long, many of the children in the area had a bag, displaying the slogan all around town. You can read a transcript of a 1948 radio broadcast with more details about Meek on the Ohio Genealogical Society website.

Following this success, Meek would go on to form the Tuscarora Advertising Co. and enjoy further profits. As more competitors began to show up, new printing methods and mediums became common. In 1904, a group of 12 promotional products manufacturers formed an industry trade association: the Advertising Manufacturers Association.

The association continued to grow until eventually renaming themselves as the Promotional Products Association International (PPAI), which is the name still used today by the organization.

Even though the industry was hit hard by the Great Depression, it was able to bounce back shortly after. According to PPAI, industry sales reached $124 million by 1947.

In the mid-1950s, another promotional products organization was formed, the Advertising Specialty Institute (ASI), which still exists today. Together, PPAI and ASI make up the two largest promo product organizations, both of which currently boast thousands of members from around the world.



Today, promotional products have grown into a multibillion-dollar industry. According to statistics published by ASI, the promotional products industry reported sales worth $22.9 billion in 2016. Not too bad for an industry started off a simple idea of printing a business name on children’s school bags!

Individuals, businesses, non-profit organizations and many others use promotional items to promote their brand, show off a new initiative or display a custom message to the world.

A custom message, logo, or other design can be printed, engraved, or otherwise displayed on just about any product imaginable – from pens to apparel and more. At TJM, we’ve seen everything from custom-printed selfie sticks to Swiggies (yes, Swiggies) to coolers, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

The modern promotional products industry is divided into two main categories: suppliers and distributors. Here’s a breakdown of each category:


Promo product suppliers are companies who manufacture and/or imprint products for sale to distributors. While the majority of their business comes from selling to distributors, many suppliers still sell some products directly to clients.


Promo product distributors sell products directly to clients. Distributors work with a variety of suppliers and other vendors to provide any products the clients are looking for, providing a complete experience. Distributors usually do little or no product manufacturing, instead relying on suppliers to provide products. This isn’t always the case, however, and here at TJM we have a full apparel screen-printing facility, along with other products we print and engrave here at our headquarters.

Research & graphic provided by the Advertising Specialty Institute, ©2016, All Rights Reserved.

According to the 2016 ASI Impressions Study, consumers hold on to a promo product for an average of eight months. In the same study, ASI states that promotional products are one of the most cost-effective and most highly-regarded forms of advertising. The promotional industry isn’t going anywhere any time soon!


So where does the promotional product industry go from here? Where will the industry be in ten years? 20? 50?

There are some exciting new products and trends we’re already seeing, offering exciting new avenues for promo products in both the near and somewhat distant future.

3D Printing

One of the biggest innovations we’ll likely see with promo products in the near future is 3D printing. While there are smaller 3D printers available for consumers, there are plenty of further technology refinements to be made before it’s viable on the commercial level for promo product businesses.

Commercial 3D printing is still too expensive for many promo product companies, but within another 5-10 years, expect the technology to make waves in the industry. Instead of printing on pre-made products, businesses can print any sort of specialized product the consumer may want. The opportunities for product customization would be nearly endless, and consumers could make highly-specialized products that are specific for their needs.

A New Reality

Both virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) technologies have made significant advancements in recent years, and both present exciting opportunities for the promotional product industry.

One of the most recent examples of the popularity and opportunity involved with AR is Pokémon Go. While the game’s 15 minutes of fame came and went, for a few months, it was common to see dozens, if not hundreds, of people out in public searching for the next rare Pokémon to show up.

For the promotional product industry, AR could be used to display a logo or design onto a surface in real time. Printing or engraving techniques used today are permanent, but imagine being able to change the custom logo or design on a product at will. AR makes it possible.

Virtual reality opens similar promotional avenues in the digital world. Second Life was a fully-simulated world where people made avatars, played games, purchased products (with real money), and more. Many clothing companies and other brands made digital products that people could buy and wear, all within the confines of the digital world.

VR headsets like the Oculus Rift or the HTC Vive make fully-immersive digital worlds a very real possibility in the near future. A promotional product in a digital world offers the benefit of not being confined by reality. Want a 20-foot tall cheeseburger with your brand logo on it? With VR, that’s a real possibility!

Research & graphic provided by the Advertising Specialty Institute, ©2016, All Rights Reserved.

Promo Products Are Here To Stay

Since the 1800s, promotional products have been a popular and affordable means of advertising a business or promoting a brand. That success continues today and shows no sign of stopping. We’re excited to see where the industry goes from here as both suppliers and distributors continue to innovate, bringing exciting new promo items to clients around the world.

Past, present, or future, there’s no denying that promotional products are here to stay. We all love receiving free stuff at an event or from a business. It’s a proven fact that people remember who gave them a promo item, so keep that in mind when you’re looking for new branding opportunities!

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