Swag: To some folks, this isn’t a four-letter word
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Consider the knickknack, the doodad, the whatnot, the "promotional item."
It turns out, the name you give them says a lot about your feelings toward them.
Attorney General Patrick Morrisey calls them "trinkets" and does not like them very much. At least, not when they are purchased with state funds.
Throughout his 2012 campaign, Morrisey criticized former Attorney General Darrell McGraw for his use of baubles and geegaws, accusing the longtime incumbent of passing out the items as taxpayer-funded campaign materials.
Indeed, McGraw did purchase a lot of what his successor calls "trinkets." Morrisey recently told members of the Senate Finance Committee that McGraw's office spent $750,000 last year on advertising alone.
That includes $17,200 spent last May for 20,000 pillboxes, according to internal documents released to the Daily Mail by the Morrisey administration. The office also spent $3,500 on school calendars last year and about $11,600 on promotional postcards, plus tens of thousands more in newspaper, magazine and television advertisements.
At a press conference last month, Morrisey showed off boxes of McGraw-era curios. There were pillboxes, coin banks, ballpoint pens, pencils, key chains, magnets and even handgun locks with the former attorney general's name on them.
Morrisey came up with a new synonym for trinkets that day, dubbing them "incumbency self-protection tools."
He vowed to stop all such expenditures in his office.
No more trinkets, no more waste, Morrisey promised.
But Ryan Westerman takes issue with the attorney general's trinket platform. He prefers to use the term "promotional products."
The owner of Artistic Promotions in Dunbar, Westerman relies on customized pens, pillboxes, bumper stickers and light-up bouncy balls to put food on his table.
"I am deeply concerned about our new attorney general and his attitude toward a very effective marketing approach - the use of promotional products," he wrote in a recent letter to the Daily Mail. "To mock those items he displayed in his latest press conference as a waste of taxpayer money is simple and misleading to say the least."
It's not a political thing. Westerman is a Republican, too, and said he agrees McGraw should not have used his name so prominently in advertising materials.
It's not a business thing, either. The state purchased about $33,000 in merchandise from Artistic Promotions last year, according to WVTransparency.org, but the company never worked with McGraw's office.
Westerman is just worried Morrisey is trying to convince the public that promotional products are junk. And in his eyes, that couldn't be farther from the truth.
"Promotional products are a valuable and cost-effective tool to educate, inform and promote a cause for any office of the government," he wrote. "If our Attorney General thinks that magnets with important office numbers, e-mail addresses or website listings are a waste of money, he needs to wake up.
"Would he say the same about Livestrong bracelets that helped raise millions for the cancer charity or pink ribbon magnets that have raised money and awareness for breast cancer charities? Are those a waste of money? I don't think so."
Westerman got into the promotional products business back in 1998 when he became a business partner at his father's year-old company. Artistic Promotions has grown steadily since then, and Westerman now has seven employees.
Most of his customers are coal and construction companies, who call Artistic Promotions when they need customized pens, T-shirts, or ball caps.
Westerman's company does not actually make the products but serves as a middleman for customers and product suppliers.
"Anything that you can imagine that has some sort of imprint or brand on it, we can get," he said.
He means "anything." The company's showroom features an entire wall of clothing items, plus another wall of stickers and magnets, flashlights, coffee cups of all shapes and sizes, belt buckles, customized bobble head dolls, mouse pads, light-up bouncy balls, shot glasses, bottle openers and all kinds of writing utensils and paper ephemera.
There also are big-ticket items like tool sets, knives, binoculars and MP3 players.
Westerman said he tries to help customers find items that meet both their budget and the message they're trying to promote. He can find something for every budget but tries to steer customers clear of "cheap" items.
He said it is often better to pay more money for quality items, even though businesses may not be able to afford quite as many. The better quality a promotional product, the more likely it will stick around someone's home.
"There's a notion a lot of this stuff is trash and that's just not true," he said. "A magnet is a perfect example. You put it on your refrigerator. It's contact information. It's an effective use of space and money.
"Pillboxes are great promotional items for people that take a lot of medication."
State Treasurer John Perdue agrees. His office hands out several kinds of promotional materials for its various programs.
Perdue promotes his Smart 529 college savings plan with clear plastic piggy banks and rubber ducks. When he goes to schools to talk about the importance of saving money, he hands out smaller piggy banks.
The treasurer's office also passes out bookmarks that double as magnifying glasses as a promotion for its unclaimed property program. The items are very popular with senior citizens, Perdue said.
"I don't look at it as 'trinkets.' I look at it as 'education tools,' " he said.
He said no one knew about the unclaimed property program when he became treasurer in 1998, but he has since made it a "household name." That success is due in part to trinkets, Perdue said.
"I don't think we would have ever been able to do it without educational tools," he said.
Not all the Smart 529 piggy banks have Perdue's name on them, but the bookmarks do. His name also is featured prominently on brochures and other literature published by the office.
That drew some fire from state Sen. Mike Hall, R-Putnam, Perdue's opponent in last November's general election.
Hall brought a purple Smart 529 piggy bank featuring Perdue's name to their meeting with the Daily Mail editorial board in October. He said the items were being used as promotional materials for Perdue's re-election campaign.
"It's name recognition," Hall said at the time.
Perdue countered, saying his name was on the piggy bank so people would know where to call. While Morrisey and Hall might consider that self-promotion, Perdue says putting his name on the items gives them credibility.
"I tell people, if my name's not on it, it's not unclaimed property. It's a scam," he said. "I think the people need to know who their treasurer is."
Perdue might believe in the power of trinkets, but knickknacks are a little difficult to find at the state Capitol. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's reception room offers only navy blue pencils featuring his name and the governor's seal.
Secretary of State Natalie Tennant's office gives away posters featuring photos and phone numbers of all state senators, delegates, Board of Public Works members, as well as West Virginia's congressional delegation.
It's not entirely clear whether paper products can be considered "trinkets," however.
Agriculture Commissioner Walt Helmick's office has some copies of his monthly newsletter on display, but not much else. State Auditor Glen B. Gainer's receptionist has a small tin filled with state seal pins, but they do not bear the auditor's name or office.
Visitors to Perdue's office won't fare much better. The Daily Mail had to specially request a Smart 529 piggy bank for the purpose of this story.
So are trinkets on the way out?
Perish the thought, says Larry Lacorte, a partner at Charleston's Rainmaker political consulting group.
"I consider collateral items just as effective as running an ad in a newspaper. It all just depends on your process," he said.
"Lots of times if you have a handout, like a flyer, it's hard to get people to take those home. But if there's some value to it, if it's a pen or a pencil or something someone wants to keep, they take that home and they're constantly reminded," he said.
You'll notice Lacorte prefers the term "collateral items" over "trinkets."
"It sounds more substantive," he explained.
Lacorte said knickknacks are useful marketing tools in certain situations, as when a client is pressing the flesh at a parade, community meeting or bean dinner.
"If you have something they like or want to keep, that lies around for years sometimes," he said.
"They're not going away."