The Mysterious Allure of the TchotchkeWhat would you do for a free T-shirt, squeezy ball or even a miniature flashlight? As almost any marketer will tell you–quite a lot actually. Think about it for a minute. Would you really have filled out that credit card application if the promise of a metal coffee thermos with the store’s name on it hadn’t been part of the sales pitch? Would you proffer your business card at a vendor’s booth—when you’re not even sure what they do—if they weren’t dangling that five-port USB mini-hub in front of you? Of course not, but for so many of us, the allure of the tchotchke is simply too strong. What is it about the tchotchke that is so compelling that we actually change our behavior to possess a 4” piece of painted foam?

Is it because they’re free? Study after study have demonstrated that Free is the most impactful word in the English language, and doesn’t everyone like to get something for nothing? I don’t think that we can downplay the free angle in seeking to explain our seemingly unquenchable desire to acquire objects that have no practical value, and that we certainly wouldn’t display in our own homes. However, even though these logoed knickknacks are available to us at no charge, I have yet to have anyone see something that I’ve brought back from a trade show and immediately declare that “they had to have one of those”. So clearly the value of a tchotchke lies in the eye of the beholder.

Perhaps we find the ability to flaunt the tchotchke as a liberating experience. A poke in the eye of convention, if you will. For example, anyone can wear one of those T-shirts with some shoe company’s logo on it that they paid $30 bucks for, but aren’t you really making a bolder statement when you wear some vendor shirt that says “I’m Tier III Certified” to your kid’s Saturday soccer game? Sure some of the other parents might think you’re some kind of dork, but did they go all the way to Vegas to get a piece of apparel that brands them as a suburban iconoclast? While their shirt may say “Just Do It”, you actually did.

Maybe the tchotchke provides us with the joy of ownership with no fear of loss. The tchotchke does not ensnare its owner within a web of emotion so dense that we would mourn its disappearance. If you don’t believe this, then please explain why you haven’t told your wife about that vase you broke a month ago? We can like our tchotchkes, but we don’t have to fall in love with them. It’s a safe relationship, and no one has to get hurt if you ever lose that acrylic paperweight facsimile of a generator.

I think the tchotchke satisfies our material desire in any vendor exchange. In other words, it’s the answer to the ubiquitous “what’s in it for me” question. One might even compare it to a unique form of barter. “Sure I’ll read your white paper, but I want a T-shirt for doing it” or “I’ll agree to attend your webinar but, whether I ultimately buy or not, your gyroscopic pen is mine to keep”. In essence, the tchotchke is the compensation that we expect for agreeing to a vendor’s request. In the world of the tchotchke, everything is a quid pro quo arrangement.

The tchotchke can also provide us with some sense of historical remembrance by serving as the business related counterpart to the souvenir from the annual family vacation. I once knew a guy who had a collection of t-shirts that he got at tradeshows. He kept each one neatly folded within a sealed Ziploc bag. Okay, that’s kind of weird but you see where I’m going with this. As you look about your office you probably have a memento or two that represent a conference or symposium in your past. While they may not mean as much to you as that conch shell ashtray you picked up when you took the wife and kids to Orlando, they still represent a specific time in your life.

Now that I have expounded on the allure of the tchotchke, I’m not sure that I have answered my own question. Perhaps there is no logical reason for our desire to possess Lucite encased spools of cat 5 cable. Maybe the appeal of the bauble is just something that is inherent in all of us. I think all that we can really say for sure is that the tchotchke can be a powerful behavioral motivator. Now if you will excuse me, if I finish this on-line survey in the next five minutes I get a free UPS shaped magnet…

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