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Tech and toys go together like truckers and CB radio — it’s impossible to imagine one without the other.

In high-tech culture, work and play are supposed to be the same; a business meeting might as easily (and in fact more profitably) be conducted over a foosball table as a conference table. No programmer worth his salt would think of occupying a cubicle devoid of at least a few nifty cool promo items.

This is not your grandfather’s oil company calendar. In the local lingo, it’s called “swag,” and it’s a vital component of the high-tech world.

About this time last year, people in the tech field were being overwhelmed by the stuff. Companies we’d never heard of selling products that seemed beyond crazy were sending everything they could get their hands on in a frantic attempt to get a little ink spilled in their direction.

The barrage peaked before Christmas; now most of those companies are gone and the swag that used to show up in my mailbox has slowed to a trickle.

But if you visit a computer trade show, you’ll see the phenomenon in high form. Otherwise normal attendees take on a glassy-eyed stare as they move from booth to booth. They look like starving hunter-gatherers on the Serengeti, scooping up everything of even potential interest as their Microsoft and Intel-emblazoned plastic loot bags become heavier at each aisle.

On the low end, you’ve got your Slinkys, your little rubber squeezable stress toys in every imaginable shape, baseball caps, t shirts and mouse pads galore, all emblazoned with company or software logos.

But swag (excuse me — promotional material) goes way beyond that. A quick survey of colleagues recalls these recent items, most of which were quickly given away or tossed:

  • A collapsible porta-potty for Y2K.
  • Barf bags with company logos printed on them (don’t ask).
  • A wooden gavel (from a law site).
  • An alarm clock
  • A Pokémon baby blankets.
  • A bonsai tree.
  • A butterfly net (message: “We’re in the Net”).
  • A pogo stick.

Calls to the folks who manufacture and sell this stuff reveal deeper trends. Promotional products are a huge industry, with a reach far beyond the tech field. The typical item costs anywhere from 50 cents to $4, and last year U.S. businesses bought over $15 billion in swag to give away — more than Americans spent on movie tickets last year.

Now there’s a spring season when new items are launched, much like fashions on the catwalks of Paris.

Ever since Apple introduced the iMac in different colors, “the whole translucent color thing has been huge,” says Branders.com’s Lisa Griffin. Squishy high-tech gel is also hot; Griffin says a gel-filled fortune-telling stress reliever is one of her more popular items.

Another is nostalgia: “Things that were old are new again,” Griffin adds. “Silly Putty, Etch A Sketch, paddle balls, yo yos. Anything from your youth, they’re finding their way back into this industry with a name on it.”

Jon Sloan of Halo Branded Solutions in Niles, Ill., says his big sellers are keyboard brushes, clips that get attached to computers to hold pictures, retractable laptop phone connectors, screen sweepers for PC monitors and mouse coordinators that keep cords untangled.

Clothing is a big part of branding, as a visit to any trendy cafe in San Francisco’s SoMa area will show. You can tell how much money a company’s got to throw around by the kind of clothes it gives away. Ubiquitous are baseball caps and T-shirts, which (perhaps because of the general level of physical fitness among programmers) almost always come in one size only — extra large.

Next on the sartorial continuum come polo shirts with the company’s name embroidered on them, followed by blue denim shirts, again with an embroidered logo.

A company is doing well, or else really trying to suck up, when it ships out fleece vests. And the apex is a full fleece jacket — these are usually reserved for employees.

Swag is all about psychology. “It’s not just about remembering the name,” says Branders.com CEO Jerry McLaughlin.

“It’s a cross-cultural reflex. If someone gives you something, you owe them something back. If you go to a trade show and they give you a T-shirt, you feel obligated to talk to them, even if you don’t want to,” he says.

Swag goes by many names. Tchotchkes, promotional items, give-aways, branders, junk. Sometimes it’s spelled and pronounced “schwag,” a variation that seems to be most used on the West Coast, especially San Francisco.

Ask folks in the high-tech world and they’ll tell you any number of stories about where the term comes from; one we consulted said it was an acronym for “stuff we always get,” while others were convinced it was a Yiddish word for junk or treasure.

All wrong, says Steve Kleinedler, editor of the American Heritage Dictionary.

The current meaning of swag — promotional toys — started popping up in the past few years, but if you go back to the 1670s, a “swag shop” was a place that sold “trashy goods.” By 1812, swag had taken on the meaning of “the stolen goods carried off by a thief,” which fits neatly with the theory held by some in the tech world that swag originally meant pirate booty.

It may have seemed like that for a while. But to the newly unemployed dot-commers clearing all this stuff out of their cubicles, it probably feels like one of Kleinedler’s more obscure meanings for the word:

“A bag holding herbal tea that is sold to a dupe instead of marijuana.”

Source: USA Today