King Of Swag

In his flaming red derby and silk tie, Norman Cohn cuts a dashing figure as he strides through New York City’s Javits Center, offering nods and wise words to purveyors of everything from “sporks”—spoons that double as forks—to pressurized pens that write underwater.

Mr. Cohn is chairman of the Advertising Specialty Institute—a for-profit trade group whose members concern themselves with all manner of promotional knickknacks. At 79 years old, he is an unofficial ambassador to this world of desk-cluttering gewgaws. Along the way, Mr. Cohn has been an influential force behind the rise of the gift bag—or at least the things that go in them. The industry does roughly $19 billion a year in sales and employs more than 400,000 people in the U.S. and Canada, says ASI.

The near-octogenarian is, in essence, the Sultan of Swag. “In this industry, you will never have seen it all,” he says, gesturing to the Javits array, scattered across more than 300 booths. Among his personal new favorites: things that light up, such as plastic ice cubes and rings that go around the neck.

ASI’s raison d’être is that almost anything can telegraph a brand. There are flip-flops that leave a company’s logo imprinted in the sand and USB drives shaped like tiny toy robots. A pressurized “Space Pen” works underwater. Introduced back in the 1960s by a firm in Boulder City, Nev., the Space Pen, used by NASA on manned space shuttles, has maintained its edge even as more tech-minded rivals have emerged.

Swag has its own hierarchy. At the bottom are the ubiquitous and the low-tech: logo-emblazoned T-shirts, ballpoint pens and shopping bags. Fancier, high-concept swag can include a diamond-encrusted pen and even a $599 motorized beverage cooler you can ride on.

Glass globes remain a popular form. At the ASI convention, a company called Milano Worldwide Corp. has a small booth filled with “Memory Globes,” including one of the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach, with floating fish and a beach umbrella. Novelty aside, “it really is a brand-building business,” says Mr. Cohn, who notes that many ASI members’ customers are small companies looking for ways to promote themselves on the cheap.

But lately, swag has been sagging. The recession forced companies to cut back on promotional spending, and business dropped nearly 20% to about $16 billion in 2009, from about $20 billion in 2008 according to ASI Chief Executive Timothy Andrews. Then last November, the Obama administration issued a call to “Stop Swag” in federal agencies as part of a wider war on waste—urging a 20% cut in spending on travel, automobile fleets, printing, and technology along with promotional products such as mugs and clothing.

The current election cycle, however, has created a grab bag for swag. As the industry rebounds, ASI estimates campaigns will spend at least $700 million to $800 million on promotional items handed out by presidential, state and local candidates. A site for Mr. Obama offers a popular $12 cat collar that says “I Meow for Michelle.”

Gill Studios Inc., a Kansas firm specializing in old-school election fare like yard signs and bumper stickers, anticipates a boom in sales, says Chief Executive Paul Lage. In an effort to innovate, the firm is touting a political tattoo. It is temporary, applied like a Band Aid. Mr. Cohn has been at this game since the era of “I Like Ike” buttons. He started in the promotional products business at 19 in his native Iowa.

Some of the earliest swag shows, in the 1950s, were typically held in hotel rooms in Chicago, says Mr. Cohn. The first official ASI show, in 1965, was also staged in the Windy City, followed by another in New York.

Back then, freebies consisted mostly of calendars and pens. “There were no T-shirts…None. There weren’t even mugs in those days,” he says. His family purchased a struggling ASI in 1962. He ultimately took over the organization, moved to the Philadelphia area, and expanded it to its current membership of 26,000.

To better hook up disparate sellers with distributors, he assigned each a confidential number. One purpose of the system: to prevent end-buyers from skipping the middleman. Each year, they congregate at five major shows, greeted by an ASI mascot called Promo.

Other than his bright red accessories—done up in Pantone number 186, the ASI’s official color—the courtly Mr. Cohn distinctly lacks any swagger. His own office suite contains a mini-museum of curiosities. Gadgets and artifacts spill across his desk; nearby is a cardboard ice dial from pre-refrigerator days, which helped housewives indicate how many pounds they needed from the ice man. An antique fan from the 1800s features the image of a pretty woman promoting a nightclub in Pittsfield, Maine. “Dine and Dance in the Barn,” the logo reads.

Paper fans “were very popular before air conditioning,” Mr. Cohn says. Companies stuck their logos on them and handed them out. What the fan was to the 19th century, the USB drive is to the 21st. The compact data storage gadgets come in every shape and size—from one tucked inside a toy robot, to another as thin as a credit card.

Personal digital devices have inspired the kitsch industry to invent brand-able accessories for iPads, iPhones and Kindles.

Mr. Cohn—who prefers the term “advertising specialties” to “swag”—still has an eye for items that are low tech. He is a fan, for example, of the “Talking Footprint Sandals.” Another of his practical favorites is an eco-friendly bamboo “wine plate” with a hole to accommodate a wine glass—perfect for circulating at cocktail parties.

“You could hold a wine glass and walk around the buffet,” Mr. Cohn chuckles. “Many of these items, you will say, ‘I could have thought of that.’ ”

Home, he admits—perhaps a tad sheepishly—is mainly off-limits to swag. His wife is a “minimalist,” he says, who comes into his office every once in a while and helps clean it out. It keeps the place from turning into “Disneyland,” he says. “He has a love affair with these little objects,” says Suzanne Cohn. “I like a sense of order and he loves clutter.”

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