From Cavemen to Robots: A Brief History of Promo Products

Promo products have been around as long as we have, and like us, they’ve come a long way. From when we were grunting Neanderthals painting cave walls, to present day humans who tweet and share pictures in a very different cave (the internet), people have always experimented using different methods to communicate their message.

What’s the premise? Take something and stick a logo on it. Easy. And here’s the thing – promos haven’t changed that much. Let’s check out a few examples over the course of human history.


While not promotional in the marketing sense, the idea of communicating a message through art has been around since early man. Cave paintings were thought to be a way of documenting (and sharing) knowledge of animals, hunting methods and tribal stories, with some caves being exclusively dedicated to these paintings and not inhabited.



Roman Empire

Emperor Augustus was arguably the branding king of antiquity. While Julius Caesar was the first Roman to put his head on a coin while still alive, Augustus was the first emperor to do so. He didn’t stop there though: arches, statues, altars – you name it, his Roman mug was on it depicting his prowess in battle and his awesomeness as emperor. When the man rode up in a chariot, people knew what was up. And considering that we’re still talking about him over 2,000 years later, I guess it worked.



Medieval Times

Back in the middle ages, you (a knight) wouldn’t just show up on a horse and announce yourself. No, sir, you’d have bannermen to do that for you, with giant banners emblazoned with your family’s crest, showing everyone that you’re the baddest jouster in town. In many ways, this was the original promo product, and for a lot of traditionalists the family emblem is still an important symbol of legacy today. If TwistKey had an age-old crest, I think it’d be a pork pie (we love our grub).



Turn of the 20th Century

This is when promotional products got real. While election buttons had been around since the time of George Washington and some US companies had dabbled with calendars, the birth of corporate merchandise as we know it is attributed to an Ohio printer who supplied book bags with his store name to local schools. The idea was quickly copied to include other products, and now the real players had come onto the scene. In 1904, the Promotional Products Association International was born, and finally the promo product went beyond books and buttons.



The 1980s

Big hair, smiley faces and Michael Jackson. The 80s were a psychedelic era, but also the big promo boom. Finally promotional products became available on a large scale, and wacky T-shirt slogans became a hit. The 80s were a great time for advertising too – Nike’s Just Do It campaign was launched in ’88 – even if the hairdos were atrocious.



Present day

And here we are today. Pens, keychains, boomerangs (yes, really) – pick an item and there is probably someone who has branded it. Despite companies Facebooking and hashtagging their way to brand-promotion glory, promotional products have still not lost its relevance. Maybe because people remember physical things more than images and text on screen, or maybe because something physical feels that much more special. But the types of products are increasingly complementing the digital world. USBs are a prime example, as they can replace physical brochures with a digital copy on a branded item that can be reused. What a different and relatively paperless world it is to the one when British Loose Leaf was founded 100 years ago…



The Future

With the rise of robots, the future of promotional products is bright. Who knows, it could mean the first promotional R2D2! Picture branded droids wandering the streets blurting out slogans and projecting holographic images on to walls…I might just be getting carried away, but you get the idea.



So there you have it – a brief history of the promotional product. It’s safe to say that the promotional product is a force to be reckoned with, and it ain’t going anywhere soon. So as your sip on your promotional mug (from that trade fair you went to last year), remember you live in a promotional world shaped by compelling brands everywhere you look.

(Photo credits: Carla216, Steven Zucker, Hans Splinter, Mo, National Museum of American History and Mark Menzies on Flickr)


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