We’ve compiled our list of the top 10 most successful promotional t-shirts of all time. Please be aware that we ruled out concert t-shirts (like the Rolling Stones Lips) as well as sports team t-shirts (like the New York Yankees). Other than that, everything was fair game as long the shirts were promoting a product that was not a fashion brand itself (Nike, for example).
#10. “I Want My MTV”
In 1982, long before MTV was a household name, the channel’s “I want my MTV!” image and branding campaign was launched to encourage viewers to call their cable or satellite providers and request that MTV be added to their local channel lineups.
Clearly, the campaign was a huge success. MTV is now one of the highest ranking cable networks on the airwaves.
The Simpsons was the Fox network’s first television series to rank among a season’s top 30 highest-rated shows, thanks in no small part to the Bart Simpson promotional t-shirts. In 1990, Bart quickly became one of the most popular characters on television in what was termed “Bartmania”. He became the most prevalent Simpsons character on promotional memorabilia, such as t-shirts. In the early 1990s, it was common to see as many as one million t-shirts featuring Bart sold in a single day. The Simpsons merchandise generated $2 billion in revenue during the first 14 months of sales.
Founded in 1983 the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) program was responsible for one of the most pervasive promotional t-shirt campaigns in U.S. history. Today the shirt we grew up with is a common target for spoof designs (Drugs Are Really Expensive). Whether or not the program has successfully steered America’s children away from drug abuse is the subject of debate, but there is no debating the $700,000,000 dollars the program spends each year, much of which goes to their promotional swag. No wonder these promotional t-shirts are so familiar!
#4. Hard Rock Cafe
The Hard Rock Cafe has over 175 locations in 55 Countries and their promotional t-shirts are one of the most common souvenirs on the planet. For many travelers, the Hard Rock Cafe promotional shirt is the only thing they take home as evidence of their adventures. The logo was created in 1971 by celebrity artist Alan Aldridge (best known for his work with the Beatles) and it was based on the simple design of a Chevy hood ornament. Originally, they were going to make the colors red, white and blue, but decided that would be too much “Americana”.
#3. Micky Mouse
The Walt Disney Corporation first began using Micky Mouse in it’s promotional merchandising in the 1930s, after the success of the cartoon short “Steamboat Willie”. The mouse we all know and love quickly spawned into one of the most globally recognized images in all of advertising. What started as a simple cartoon turned into a fashion brand all its own. This promotional t-shirt is the anchor of a merchandising powerhouse that averages over 3 billion dollars a year in revenue.
#2. Harley Davidson
In 1901 William S. Harley began sketching the first design for a Harley Davidson Motorcycle. Little did he know, his design was the beginning a one of the most iconic brands in American history. It can be argued that no other brand has been as successful in marketing their product through promotional apparel. Harley promotional t-shirts are worn as a badge of honor amongst Harley riders as a symbol of membership in an exclusive club. Promotional apparel accounts for 50 million dollars in sales per year for the brand; approximately 5% of their gross revenue.
#1. “I Love New York”
Famed designer, Milton Glaser was in the back of a yellow taxi in 1977 in Manhattan when he sketched this logo on an envelope. He had been asked to develop a design that would reinvent NYC’s image, and ended up creating one of the most enduring logos ever (Parade Magazine). This promotional t-shirt has become a synonym for the city it promotes and the campaign’s success has contributed to New York’s position as the most visited city in the U.S.