The Story of Promotional Products

  • Jul 6, 2016

The first documented use of promotional products in the United States were commemorative buttons made by a Scottish engraver in 1789 to mark the inauguration of George Washington. Thereafter, the use of promotional products gained enough traction to birth the promotional product industry we know and love today.

One of the earliest contributors to the budding industry was a newspaper man named Jasper Freemont Meek. Like many of his contemporaries, Meek supplemented his newspaper printing income by printing other items between editions. His first idea came when he saw a child drop her school books in the dirt. He brainstormed FREE burlap bags reading: “Buy Cantwell Shoes” to promote his client’s company. Cantwell and the children were delighted at this new advertising idea.


On the heels of his burlap bag success, Meek started printing company names on horse covers, and eventually opened the first ever promotional products company in 1887, the Tuscarora Advertising Company. Meek’s first competitor was a man named Henry Beach. Both men aggressively sold printing packages for virtually anything that could fit onto a newspaper press, such as cloth caps, aprons, hats for horses, marble bags, buggy whips, card cases, calendars and fans.

Further Matters of Note in Promotional Product History:av bag


  • The use of metal signs was first used to advertise products such as Coca Cola and Budweiser
  • The concept of an “art calendar” was established in the late 1800’s by other early industry leaders, Thomas Murphy and Edward Burke Osborne.
  • By 1894, Osbourne acquired a process now known as letter press printing.
  • In 1904, representatives of 12 manufacturers of advertising goods formed an industry trade association they called the Advertising Manufacturer’s Association. That group is now called the Promotional Products Association International (PPAI).
  • Although the industry was hit hard by the Great Depression, it was booming by the late 1940’s.
  • Today, membership in the PPAI is more than 10,000, with industry sales of $17.5 billion.
  • Founded in 1985 by Debbie and Dennis Johnson, OnTarget Promotions is located in Riverside, California. Over the past 31 years, Debbie has served on the PPAI board as Awards Committee chair, which gave her the joy of judging the best of the best promotional programs. On Target has also received the President’s Council Award and the Million Dollar Circle of Excellence Award for the past nine years.


Promotional Products Work


calendarA basic marketing principle suggests that it takes seven “touches” before someone will internalize your call to action (become your customer). These touches can take many forms:

  1. Meeting face-to-face, in a meeting, at a networking event or a tradeshow
  2. Seeing a physical or digital ad
  3. Seeing your social media posts in a news stream
  4. Receiving your e-newsletter other electronic marketing piece
  5. By phone
  6. Word-of-mouth recommendation of a friend or colleague
  7. Seeing your brand displayed on a promotional product – This method of advertising is a no-brainer, because potential clients will see your logo as many times as they use the product it displays. So you could potentially increase the number of touches simply by giving away your personalized pen, notepad or coffee cup.

For the last three years, OnTarget Promotions’ client Blackhawk Plaza has held a Summer Concert Series, designed to increase traffic at the shopping center’s stores. Community support is key to the success of this series, so they purchased branded promotional items to tie in with the series to “woo” attendees. The strategy works, as the plaza has repeatedly “sold out” of the T-shirts because the community wants to support the event and loves the look of Blackhawk-branded apparel.  blackhawk


OnTarget Promotions is a national promotional products agency based in Riverside, California. We help clients use promotional products along with other media to design and secure quality promotional programs that meet their goals and exceed their expectations. Since we believe nothing is a greater reflection of success than a repeat customer, everything we do is designed with our customer in mind. Your focus is our goal. Call (951) 682-8427 or email us to start your project today.