Government Swag: Pros and Cons

Local leaders differ on whether government-branded freebies and trinkets are worth the money.
 

About a month ago, we wrote an item in the B&G Report about California Gov. Jerry Brown's mandate that state agencies no longer purchase coffee mugs, tote bags, t-shirts and other so-called swag. The governor had claimed that these kinds of things cost the state some $7.5 million from 2007 to 2010, according to the Sacramento Bee.

We asked B&G readers whether they thought these giveaways have any real value — or whether they're just silly expenses. We got a robust number of answers, and we wanted to share a good sampling with you. Here they are:

"I think simply providing swag items by themselves is useless BUT ... by using them along several other channels to promote a health initiative (I work in public health) they can be effective. Examples I can think of include providing links to your campaign website or providing hotline numbers for STI testing or crisis lines." — Robert L. Franklin, Male Outreach Coordinator, Division of Prevention & Health Promotion, Virginia Department of Health

"As an elected village official I think swag is a waste of precious tax dollars and resources. Every level of government owes it to their taxpayers to use tax dollars in a wise and judicious manner." — Gary Springman, Trustee, Village of Brown Deer, Wisconsin

"I live in New York City, a city drowning in swag items. While I do believe swag items can be a waste of money and resources, they can serve a purpose. If used effectively it achieves an organizational goal and good marketing and advertising — the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene gives away free condoms branded with an NYC logo, and achieves a double whammy — meeting a public health need and reminding New Yorkers that the city agency exists and is getting work done. I also still have (and have used) a safety whistle on my keychain that my county public safety office distributed when I was 20 or 21. It's rubbed off by now, but at one point it had police contacts on one side and victims services contacts on the other. Again, a double whammy — it was there when I needed it and prevented an attack, and while I don't live in Oneida County anymore, I still give them credit for providing me with a strategy for staying safe. ...

"The public doesn't need pens and post-its or tote bags. Whatever you give away should be linked to what your organization does and have a use that links directly to your services." — Amanda Kogut, Business Analyst with the nonprofit Wildcat Service Corporation

"I work for a public library and we use lots of bags, bookmarks, and pencils to promote our website which you can use to access databases and individual library accounts. The key is to pick a swag item that has long-lasting value ... The giver has to point out the information to the recipient and make sure the recipient is an appropriate audience. Just my two cents." — Wynita Worley, Public Services Librarian, Grant County (Ky.) Public Library

"I have mixed feelings because I know they can be great advertising tools, and this is usually their intent. However, in a time of massive furloughs, lay-offs, and program cuts, these expenses should be eliminated." — Sue Walker, Meter Manager, City of Gainesville, Georgia

"My opinion is that swag can be effective and worth the investment, but seldom is. To me, most swag just becomes part of the general visual and mental clutter of life. A keychain? Nice, I've got half a dozen in my desk I don't use. A water bottle? Great, I'll put it with the 3 others I have, it will look great in my dishwasher. A coffee mug? Really? Another to put in the box I'm donating to something else. This happens because the vast majority of the time it is free, and all I had to do was put my hand out when I'm someplace.

"For me, swag is effective when the recipient had to 'earn' it, or do something to get it. A community radio station I am involved with gives t-shirts to anyone who volunteers at least 15 hours for their annual trivia contest. I wear those shirts with pride, and there is no way on earth anyone is getting them away from me. Most everyone else who is involved feels exactly the same. That swag is effective because it has intrinsic meaning to the recipient." — Aaron Anderson, City Administrator, City of Ely, Iowa

"From time to time I have purchased 'swag' pens, pencils, pins, hats, to promote the City of Milford. Recent budget cuts have limited the amount purchased in the last few years, but I do believe they have value. Part of my job is to promote the city. Little mementos with the city's name and logo ('A Small City with a Big Heart') end up somewhere that may lead to a new company coming to Milford. We have site selectors come in once a year and give them a cap. They also promote a sense of pride in the community. Most cost around a dollar or less in value but they pay off in a myriad of ways." — Bob Gregory, Director of Economic and Community Development, City of Milford, Connecticut

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