Promotional Product Marketing, College Students, and Social Identity

Article excerpt

This study describes the type and nature of promotional items distributed on university campuses to students; college students typically are in a stage of life characterized by identity exploration. Among 241 students, 90% received at least one promotional item (e.g., T-shirts, pens/pencils, magnets, calendars, water bottles); 58% received at least one T-shirt. Most common imprints on the 249 T-shirts were the university's name, alcohol vendors, or credit cards. Some products and services being promoted were controversial (e.g., credit cards, alcohol). The appeal of controversial promotional products has the potential to adversely shape college students' social identity.

"Promotional products marketing is an umbrella term for imprinted merchandise such as T-shirts, writing instruments, baseball caps, and coffee mugs" (Matteson, 1993, p. 31). The top two promotional products are apparel and writing implements-clothes and pens (Young, 2006). Promotional products generally are distributed free, in exchange for information, or sold for a nominal fee. Promotional products, also known as ad specialties, freebies, or giveaways, are used to build goodwill, gain attention, and advertise the company-its image, its products, and its services (Daly, 1997). One benefit of carefully planned promotional products is that customers develop a certain feeling about the company's image, products, or services (Moss, 1999). That feeling can include social identification-an individual's cognitive connection with an organization or a perceived overlap in the individual's identity and the organization's identity (Fuller, Marier, Hester, Frey, & Relyea, 2006). Businesses spend more than $18 billion yearly on promotional items (Burling, 2006) because they are effective advertising tools. The purpose of this study was to describe the type and nature of promotional items, especially T-shirts, distributed on university campuses to students while they are in a stage of life characterized by identity exploration.

SOCIAL IDENTITY THEORY

Emerging adulthood (ages 18-25) is a stage of life characterized by identity exploration (Arnett, 2000). Social identity theory is one framework concerned with self-categorization of adults (Crosby, Kim, & Hathcote, 2006). The perception of shared characteristics of individuals and an organization or group (i.e., a university, alcohol vendor, or credit card company) creates a shared identity. Promotional products are designed to encourage individuals to view consumption of a particular product as an expression of identity (Breazeale, 1994). The more prestigious the organization or group, the more individuals relate to the common identity (Smidts, Pruyn, & Riel, 2000).

Emerging adults are vulnerable to social identity formation because of their tendency to think in concrete terms which leads them to believe what they see and hear (Arnett, 1997; Linn, 2000). This tendency is further accentuated by the desire to share characteristics, virtues, and flaws with the individuals they perceive as members of the ingroup (Crosby et al., 2006). These tendencies make them susceptible to advertising appeals. Promotional items imprinted with brand names and associated images may be effective especially with emerging adults because such items may be worn or used to communicate a wearer's identity (Darden & Worden, 1991). Students are faced with establishing many identities-a student at a particular university, a member of a peer group, and an independent person making financial decisions (Arnett, 1998).

PROMOTIONAL PRODUCTS

Effective promotional items are functional or useful, such as apparel (T-shirts, caps), desk accessories (calendars, pens), and coffee mugs. Not all promotional products are functional (e.g., flashing badges or rubber duckies) or effective (e.g., items made of cheap plastic) (Burling, 2006). The Promotional Products Association hired a research firm to ask business people (n = 536) at airports their opinion about promotional items (Promotional Products, 2004; Stern, 2005). …