Never Forget: An Oral History of 9/11 and the Promo Industry

The terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, forever changed our lives. Twenty years later, promo industry veterans recall the anguish and the impact.

The United States was never the same after Sept. 11, 2001.

At 8:46 a.m. ET, American Airlines Flight 11 (hijacked by al-Qaeda terrorists) was flown into the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York City. Seventeen minutes later, United Airlines Flight 175 flew into the South Tower. Within the next two hours, both buildings would collapse.

American Airlines Flight 77, a third hijacked plane, crashed into the Pentagon in Arlington County, Virginia. Hijackers intended to fly United Airlines Flight 93 into either the White House or Capitol Building, but passengers wrestled control away and the plane crashed into a field near Shanksville, PA.

Considered the deadliest terrorist attack in history, the tragedy claimed 2,977 lives, including those of 340 firefighters and 72 law enforcement officers.

According to the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security, property damage, the drop in the stock market and lost production of goods and services cost America nearly $2 trillion. An estimated 83,000 people throughout the country were put out of work. Insurance and travel were the two hardest hit markets, according to the Institute, losing $40 billion and $10 billion, respectively. The attacks cost New York City $95 billion due to lost jobs and taxes, infrastructure damage and repair efforts. The U.S. economy – already in a recession from the dot-com bubble bursting – would flounder immediately afterward.

Dow Jones office after 9/11 attack

The Dow Jones office, located across the street from the World Trade Center, after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. (Photo from Tim Andrews)

The promotional products industry wasn’t immune. Total industry sales were $16.5 billion in 2001, but fell to $15.6 billion the following year, according to ASI data. With events, trade shows and large public gatherings – the lifeblood of the industry – canceled due to safety concerns, suppliers and distributors were forced to seek alternatives to drum up business.

To commemorate the 20th anniversary of this world-shaking event, ASI Media spoke with promo veterans about 9/11: the anguish of that day, the immediate impact on sales, the subsequent push for Made-in-America products, and how long it took to return to “normal.” The anniversary comes as our society deals with another life-changing event – and in many ways, the aftermath of 9/11 echoes our collective journey through the COVID-19 pandemic. And by looking back at this singularly tragic moment in America’s history, perhaps we can see the road that will take us away from our current crisis and toward a happier, hopeful future.

The Morning Of

The night of Sept. 10, thunderstorms struck New York City from a cold front that pushed Hurricane Erin out to sea. Had the sky not been visible from the ground or if adverse weather caused airport delays, Sept. 11 could have been much different. Unfortunately, it was a beautiful, sunny Tuesday. As the planes were in the air, many promo professionals had already started their work day. 

Larry Cohen, president of New York City-based Axis Promotions powered by HALO (asi/128263): Our office was in SoHo, a neighborhood in downtown New York City. We were having a meeting and someone at the table said, “that plane sounds like it’s flying really low.” Then, we heard about the crash in the World Trade Center. At first, we thought it was an accident, but then we started following the news. One of my best friends had an office on the top floor of our building, so we looked out the window and saw everything on fire. Suddenly, there was this big pile of smoke and one of the buildings was gone.

Lizzz Kritzer, owner of New York City-based Kritzer Marketing (asi/245947): I was in my office on the 28th floor of 245 Fifth Avenue with windows facing south to the towers. I was the only one in the office and my friend called to tell me to look out the window. I assumed it was a horrible accident until I saw the second plane hit the other tower. By this time, everyone was showing up for work and no one knew what to do. So, everyone went back home. I thought it was the end of the world as we knew it.

Tim Andrews, president and CEO of ASI: Before joining ASI, I worked 16 years at the Dow Jones, and our offices were right across the street from the World Trade Center. On Sept. 10, I ate breakfast at one of my favorite restaurants there (on either the 42nd or 43rd floor). I was running Primedia Business Magazines at the time and had a meeting in the city. That afternoon, on my way home, I bought a pair of chinos at the Banana Republic in the newly renovated WTC shopping concourse. Early the next morning, I took off from Newark Airport for Kansas City, on a business trip with my colleague. We learned in flight about the first plane hitting WTC and then at the rental car counter about both planes crashing into the WTC and the one at the Pentagon. Every year I think that if I had eaten there just 24 hours later, I would have died.

Cohen: We were really concerned about the safety of our people. The natural inclination is to run, but we figured we were in a safer area as opposed to Grand Central Station or the Empire State Building or any of the bridges. So, our recommendation was for everybody to stay and we’d support each other. There was one guy, he was outsourced IT and sort of this macho surfer guy, he freaked out and left. We never saw him again.

Josh Frey, founder of Geiger-affiliated On Sale Promos and the Swag Coach Program: I was living in Washington D.C. and would commute to Springfield, VA. My route took me along the same side of the Pentagon that the plane hit. I actually heard stories that it bounced off the highway before plowing into the building. I was already in my office that morning and listening to Howard Stern when it happened. Everybody was shocked. My wife canceled her appointment in D.C. because we weren’t sure if it was next. We didn’t even go back to our house that night – we went to her parents’ house in Northern Virginia.

Tim Andrews“When I finally made it home, there was a bouquet of flowers on my porch with a card that read ‘sorry for your loss.’ After not seeing me for two weeks, my next-door neighbors assumed I had been killed.” Tim Andrews, ASI

Andrews: While I was crowded in a conference room with my Kansas City colleagues watching everything unfold on a big screen TV, we had probably 200 employees in New York City. I sent an email to everyone encouraging them to either stay in the office or go home, whatever made them feel safe. I couldn’t get a flight back home for two weeks. To give people a sense of relief, my friend and I planned a party for our friends in my backyard. When I finally made it home, there was a bouquet of flowers on my porch with a card that read “sorry for your loss.” After not seeing me for two weeks and with a giant tent in my backyard, my next-door neighbors assumed I had been killed.

Josh Goodelman, vice president and COO of Hauppauge, NY-based Liqui-Mark Corp. (asi/67675): I was in Houston for business and received a call from my dad as I was walking out of my hotel to go to a meeting. I walked back into the lounge and the news report was just shocking. My meeting was then canceled as most downtown locations across the country were evacuated. I was scared, as I soon lost the ability to communicate with my family on both cell and land lines. I was able to reach them via AOL Instant Messenger before their internet went down in New York.

Charles Doligé, partner at New York City-based LR Paris (asi/246857): I was supposed to move to the U.S. that day. I was on a flight from Paris to Washington D.C., and while we were in the air, we were told that the D.C. airport was closed, so we’d be turning back around. They didn’t tell us what had happened, so we thought we were going to die. After all, there are tons of airports in the U.S. for us to go to. I didn’t learn about what actually happened until we landed back in Paris. My future wife was in New York City and we were in contact throughout the day. Even with everything going on, I still came over to the U.S. one week later and have been here ever since.

Goodelman: I repositioned myself to a hotel near the airport so that I could jump on any flight remotely close to New York. Three days later, I was able to book a flight to Washington D.C. and booked a rental car with the intention to drive home after landing. I noticed the gate next to mine showed “JFK – New York.” I asked the gate agent what was happening because all flights to New York were canceled. The gate agent informed me, “That is what we want the world to think – we need to reposition planes. Give me your boarding pass and take any open seat.” There were about six people on the plane. No one got up once in three and a half hours. When I landed at JFK, it was empty. I had to walk about one mile from the terminal to the main road to get picked up by my dad.

Impact on Business

From March 2001 until November 2001, the U.S. was in a recession, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research. In the wake of the dot-com bubble burst, many e-commerce outlets and communications companies were forced into bankruptcy and closure. From June 2001 until January 2002, the unemployment rate rose every month, starting at 4.5% and settling at 5.7%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Despite the financial strife, the promo industry still achieved record sales in 2001. Still, business was immediately impacted, and the Q4 hangover carried over into the following year.

Cohen: Access to our building was cut off for at least two weeks, maybe even four. We didn’t have Zoom back then, so everybody took their files and tried to work from home. We had to trust that our employees were doing the best they could, but there wasn’t a lot of business going on, anyway. So much of our business revolved around New York. Our biggest client at the time was American Express, whose offices were in a building right next to the World Trade Center. So, they were severely impacted.

Goodelman: Our business was affected for about 10 days. We had limited to no shipping ability because trucks were not allowed to cross the bridges and internet and phone communications were down.

Jim Franklyn, vice president of business development at Atlanta-based Swag Promo (asi/340491): Business came to a grinding halt. Flights only stopped for a few days, but with so many people afraid to fly, the airline industry almost crumbled. Tourism drives Florida, where I was living and working at the time. The hospitality market was a big part of what we did and everything just stopped for what felt like a month.

The percentage decrease in total promotional products industry sales in 2002, dropping from $16.5 billion to $15.6 billion.

Eric Levin, executive vice president of decoration/hard goods at Top 40 supplier alphabroder (asi/34063): At the time, I was running my own company – Jetline – in Yonkers, NY. My business was very trade show oriented, and trade shows were shut down for at least six months. Our accounts dried up and people didn’t even put out catalogs in 2002.

Frey: I had just entered the promo industry as a gift and fulfillment supplier. When 9/11 happened, we immediately pivoted to the distribution side. When you’re a distributor, you don’t have to manage inventory, labor, etc. We also needed other product lines because we were selling luxury holiday items and would have been in big trouble. With marketing budgets being cut, luxury items went out the door.

Kritzer: I certainly thought I’d never sell another promo item. Who cares about promotional products at a time like this? But interestingly, similar to selling masks during the pandemic, we had a huge surge of patriotic items in New York. One week after 9/11, we were selling American flags on garments and American flag lapel pins.

Lizzz Kritzer“I certainly thought I’d never sell another promo item. Who cares about promotional products at a time like this? But similar to selling masks during the pandemic, we had a huge surge of patriotic items in New York.” Lizzz Kritzer, Kritzer Marketing

Lisa Smith, founder and president of Austin, TX-based Republic Promos (asi/307316): Business took a downturn for a month, but when we started selling American pins and flags, it picked back up. That was a huge pivot that helped us tremendously.

Levin: The NFL only took a week off. I went to a Jets game and could still see smoke coming from the World Trade Center two weeks later. As I walked into the stadium with 60,000 people, I realized this country will never live without its sports. So, I started thinking about creating products for next year and came up with hand clappers for baseball, basketball, soccer and football. They were so successful that, while the industry was down in 2002, we were up about 40%. By turning generic items into sports products, we had one of the most popular booths when we returned to trade shows in 2003.

Made in America

In the weeks following 9/11, President George W. Bush attempted to comfort a wounded nation by claiming that the best way to fight terrorism is by continuing to live freely.

To prevent an economic downward spiral, Bush encouraged Americans to spend. “One of the great goals of this nation’s war is to restore public confidence in the airline industry and to tell the traveling public, get onboard, do your business around the country, fly and enjoy America’s great destination spots,” Bush said.

In the wake of the attacks, President George W. Bush urged Americans to resume travel and consumer spending.

As a result of Bush’s plea and renewed nationalism, buying American products became the hottest consumer trend. After 9/11, 50% of people older than 55 said they were more likely to purchase goods and services made in the U.S., according to Ad Age Global. In response, marketers developed campaigns centered on American products and the economic benefits of buying them.

Mitch Cahn, president of Newark, NJ-based Unionwear (asi/73775): The push for “Made in USA” really began with 9/11. At the time, we were only making baseball caps, but then I got roped into making car flags. American flags were a tremendous item for the rest of fall that year. There was also a surge in hats for the New York City Police Department and New York City Fire Department with labor unions ordering millions. We started working weekends and had to buy more embroidery machines because everybody wanted an American flag on the side of their baseball caps.

Brandon Mackay, CEO of Top 40 supplier SnugZ USA (asi/88060): There did seem to be a greater push for American-made products post-9/11 and SnugZ USA was in a great position to meet that demand, especially for lanyards and badges. Our business was never the same.

flag pin

American flag pins, like this one from Indianapolis-based EMT (asi/52263), were ubiquitous in the weeks after 9/11.

Gary Mosley, owner of Houston-based Kati Sportcap (asi/64140): We didn’t carry American-made products, but our American-themed merchandise flew off the shelves. We ran out almost immediately and it took us a while to get them back in.

Franklyn: There was a push for “Buy American” during that holiday season, but it’s always short-lived because of extensive supply chain and logistical issues.

Thomas Foster, CEO of Eugene, OR-based Strapworks (asi/337728): As far as any “Made in America” sentiment, that comes and goes. Mostly, sadly, no one cares. Cost is almost always the bottom line. If you can price so you’re really close to the bottom, it does have a positive effect on your business.

Moral Dilemma

At the dawn of the COVID-19 crisis, some promo firms struggled with the idea of pivoting to personal protective equipment (PPE), worried about the perception that they were capitalizing on an unfortunate situation.

There was a similar sentiment in the wake of 9/11, as advertising campaigns wrapped in red, white and blue tiptoed the line between patriotism and jingoism.

Cohen: It was not a feel-good kind of time. Companies were still figuring things out from an advertising standpoint. Not only was there less demand, but it was hard to get motivated to sell. We stayed in touch with our clients, but it felt too weird to be doing a lot of hard selling. We ordered thousands of American flag pins and sent those out to clients, but that was just a way for us to build solidarity.

Mosley: There was a little hesitation about advertising in the wake of 9/11. While we offered USA-themed caps, we certainly didn’t take the opportunity to gouge people. We just sold stuff for what it was and might have reduced pricing slightly, if anything. We did see a lot of price gouging during the pandemic, though.

Frey: There was definitely a conservative approach toward advertising. There was just so much unknown.

Mackay: After any tragedy, there is a certain waiting period that’s expected before going back to normal. This happened naturally after 9/11 – there wasn’t a rush to advertise prematurely.

Return to Normalcy

Eventually, the shock, anger and mourning faded. The economy rebounded, quicker than many expected, while the promo industry faced a slower recovery. Peopled resumed their normal way of life, even as some things (such as airplane travel) were forever changed. Partisanship receded and patriotism soared.

The national scar from 9/11 still remains. The lessons from that tragic day, we can hope, won’t be forgotten.

Cohen: It took several months for business to return to normal. Even when sales picked back up, our method of doing business had to change. For example, we used to be able to wander the halls at American Express, checking in with different departments. After 9/11, you couldn’t access floors that you weren’t pre-approved for. We also had to go through security and have bags checked every time we entered the building. Knocking on doors for business became a lot harder because potential clients were more suspect.

Levin: Business came back in Q1 2002 because of all the new sports-related products we launched: yo-yos, pens, stress balls, pillow balls, wind-up toys, etc.

Frey: It took six months to a year before people were comfortable again. However, the economic impact of 9/11 can’t compare with the impact from COVID and the global recession.

Brandon Mackay“I do remember the shock and pain being replaced by patriotism and pride. I was proud to be an American while watching all those who risked everything and gave everything that September morning.” Brandon Mackay, SnugZ USA

Mackay: I can’t recall the first day that things began to feel normal, but I do remember the shock and pain being replaced by patriotism and pride. I was proud to be an American while watching all those who risked everything and gave everything that September morning.

Franklyn: Business picked back up right after Halloween. We were a young company then and due to some established firms being disrupted, it allowed us to gain market share. I can remember going to local trade shows and there being this heightened sense of gratitude for our military and appreciation of our freedom. People realized how lucky they were. I realized how much I love my family and the industry. Other than COVID, it was the biggest wakeup call of my life.

Andrews: I just remember how nice everybody was. We were all in a completely different mindset and just thankful to be alive. It wasn’t about politics or Democrats and Republicans – it was about Americans. We gained that feeling for a year or so after 9/11, but we seem to have lost it over the past few years. I wish people would remember how kind we were to each other.