Smart Schwag

Here’s the first installment of my column at MediaPost. Please add your favorite examples of smart schwag with the comment button at the bottom of this post.

SCHWAG. IT SOUNDS YIDDISH. THE word actually traces back to 14th century Norwegian, but schwag’s potential for beauty, lyricism and the power to move people is as forgotten as the Yiddish language’s potential for the very same. Some of the most poignant and funny poems, novels and jokes were once written in Yiddish. Today the language is reduced to tired one-liners–like “I’m so verklempt.” Same with schwag. Despite some mesmerizing moments in promotional products “advertising,” most schwag (think pen with logo) is shlekht (that actually is Yiddish, and it means crap). Unlike Yiddish, schwag (or swag, which sounds British) has the power to be understood universally. So, why does a type of advertising on which corporations spend close to $17.5 billion a year (according to the Promotional Products Association International–that’s more than one-third of what’s spent on TV) get such short creative shrift?

The question is particularly relevant today, when advertisers are seeking alternative media channels that touch a larger part of consumers’ everyday lives than TV spots or print ads. Done right, schwag could have many of the characteristics brand-builders are seeking. Promotional items are tangible, handheld “commercials” that people take the trouble to fly home with, display, use, and share. So, why are these “commercials” hardly ever designed to make people laugh, think or even cry like great TV or print advertising? Why isn’t there more smart schwag that induces a meaningful, lasting brand experience, that:

  • is really useful,
  • gives joy,
  • is surprising and unique,
  • fits into the day and life of the recipient,
  • is affordable,
  • represents a brand’s core?

Here are a few examples of smart schwag.

  • The substantial bar of oatmeal soap the then-new Sundance Channel placed in hotel bathrooms at cable TV conferences about a decade ago. For me the soap fit perfectly into my day, smelled far better than the perfumed hotel soap, and represented the brand. Oatmeal soap is a little bit country–in that Sundance way. It’s not smooth and dense and urban. It’s cityfolk-heading-to-the country-for-the-weekend. In fact today, whenever I use oatmeal soap, I still experience Sundance.
  • The single-channel Bloomberg-brand transistor radio tunable only to Bloomberg 1130 (WBBR-AM). Surprising. Original. Useful.
  • The Crispin-Porter Flop-Flips (“‘Why not make a sandal that goes flop-flip?’ …. ‘It can’t be done,’ they said. ‘A sandal should go flip-flop not flop-flip.’ … After years of research and millions … in development costs we’ve given the flip-flop a new sound. Introducing the Flop-Flip”). Useful (at least in Miami). Original. And highly representative of the brand.

It’s about money, and something much more valuable: consumers’ time. If the industry is spending $17.5 billion on anything, doesn’t it warrant more creative thought than printing a logo on a golf shirt? More importantly, if a consumer is giving an advertiser–you–so much of his or her precious time and attention, by taking a promo item home or to the office, displaying it, and sharing it with friends and family, shouldn’t brands be making the very most of this, and thinking hard about how to incite a true brand experience?

There is a Yiddish renaissance occurring on some college campuses and in not-quite popular culture (for example, the Knitting Factory’s JAM record label). Isn’t it time for a schwag renaissance? Do you have a favorite piece of “smart schwag” that you have seen or created? Add your examples by commenting below.

Shoutouts to for the etymology of schwag and to the PPAI for the stats.

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8 responses

  1. eroschwag…see the "tear-off" erotic novel part of a campaign for O’My natural lubricant. The novel was hung on the wall of women’s bathrooms.

  2. About time someone wrote a smart article about this. I can think of far more BAD schwag than good schwag. As a media buyer we are sent schlekht everyday. Smart schwag this year has been the portable USB drives the new network have been giving away. Smart, tech saavy, useful…i get it.

  3. Thanks for the article. I plan to share it with my Creative Advertising Strategy extension university students and challenge them to come up with useful/smart schwag. Thanks also for the spelling! My experience with smart schwag is thanks to ABC. Several years ago I was fortunate enough to tour the studio, meet Peter Jennings (!) and sit on the set of the news as he did his evening broadcast. As a memento, the ABC sales folks gave all of us a Good Morning America bathrobe — a genuine "wow" tie-in to the morning show. A nice quality, one size fits all classic white terry cloth robe with the ABC logo tasetfully embroidered in white over the "pocket" and the Good Morning America logo sewn inside the neck band, right where you’d expect the manufacturer’s logo. I use that robe to this day!

  4. The company I work for, an internet giant we’ll call "Yee-haw," is the king of Schwag. A cursory glance into the Marketing/PR storage room would reveal pens, pads, pencils, USB drives, mini optical mouses, zagat’s movie guides packaged w/pad and light-up pen, wine bottle openers packaged w/Wine Enthusiast guide to fancy hootch, water bottles, ‘camel’ water backpacks, nerf footballs, lava lamps, six-pack coolers, totes and clothing of every variety, mints, and even gumball machines.Is any of this especially ‘smart?’ Some of it I’ve appropriated and use often, even daily (mints). As a tech company the gadgets tend to be the most popular.I think the novelty of a particular piece of schwag fades and the brand fades into the background. I don’t know whether even the smartest schwag can avoid this.What about a branded hooker?

  5. Just re-enforcing some earlier comments, we recently put our press kit for a trade show on a USB drive that we gave out to the press. It had the benefit of providing all of our info and product photos in electronic format to make it easier for the press to do a story on us and the drive itself had our logo so if they continued to use it for storage, we were keeping our brand in front of them. The USB drives were only $20 a piece, obviously a little more expensive than print brochures but I think the expense was worth it judging by the coverage we picked up.

  6. Nice article. I actually posted part of the answer on my blog, Everybody Loves Free Stuff:Smart Schwag?I love the examples here, and we’ve done many similar things for our clients (one of our case studies is a robe we did for Hypnotiq). I think the bottom line is that great promotional products are like any great advertising, you need great ideas and great execution.

  7. What a great blog piece! This industry is very exciting and the marketing ideas some of the most creative.One of my favorite smart promotional products are flip-flops that have a logo carved into the bottom of the sole, so the logo is left in the sand all over the beach. Great for sunscreen companies, beachside restaurants and pubs, or casinos in Atlantic City.Here’s another one: doggie rawhide chews that can be imprinted with a veterinary office’s logo and handed out to Fido and Owner when completing a visit. Actually, there are many other pet accessories out there too, like bandanas and leashes. Options are limited only by the imagination. If you’d like, watch videos about other products at, The Advertising Specialty Institute.

  8. The "flop-flip"? Really? Is that a great example? It’s a clever novelty at best, but do you really believe Crispin-Porter clients were impressed?

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