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Trade Group Brings Promotional Swag To Dallas

This week, the Kay Bailey Hutchinson Convention Center is filled with branded pens, mugs and t-shirts, along with tchotchkes that are much more memorable and weird, like the Texas shaped engraved cutting board.

Paula Shulman has been selling these promotional products for over three decades. In that time, she has seen industry trends come and go.

“The owner of my company went to an event, and he came back and said, ‘this is greatest item, we have to come out with it!’” Shulman says. “We all looked at him like he was crazy. In the first year, we sold seven million.”

This year, she’s selling a ton of phone cases and chargers, reusable grocery bags and bobble-heads pens—that’s right, pens topped with bobble heads with fuzzy hair that wiggle when you write. Universities, hospitals and hotels love to brand these trinkets, perhaps because of their long-term appeal.

“Companies will spend millions on advertising on TV. That’s great, it’s funny, it’s nice, and then you forget about it. If someone gives you a pen, you’re not going to throw it away until you lose it or it runs out of ink,” Shulman says.

  While it all seems free, swag is actually a twenty-one billion dollar industry. Matthew Cohn is the Vice Chair of the Advertising Specialty Institute, the trade group that hosts this annual convention of buyers and sellers. 

“We have a database of three-quarters of a million products,” Cohn says. “Anything you can envision, someone can brand and give away.”

It seems as though no one can resist the lure of the free, even Troy Aikman, who was the show’s keynote speaker this year. The former Cowboys quarterback has seen a lot of swag in his life, and says it never stops being fun.

“It never ends, you know that,” Aikman says. “Free is good. I get as excited as the next person.”

As you wander the trade floor, there are branded hoodies with built-in pockets for your beer and cleaning slippers, hot sauce and bicycles. A perennial best-seller is plastic ice cubes with flashing lights inside. And if you want to get Aikman’s attention, go back to the basics: his favorite freebie is a logo cap.