A Fun History of Promotional Products: The Stress Ball

Variety of branded stress relievers

Feeling like a ball of stress? Then grab a stress ball!

Stress balls have become one of the most popular promotional items available for branding. In fact, a single supplier reported selling 15 million stress balls in 2014 alone.

Why are stress balls so popular? For one thing, they’re available in dozens of fun shapes and colors. They’re an inexpensive promotional giveaway that’s gender-neutral and effective for all age groups. And the action of squeezing a stress ball or fiddling with its cousin, a fidget-widget, has been shown to have calming and therapeutic benefits.

Squishy stress balls may be everywhere, but where did they come from in the first place? In our latest installment of A Fun History of Promo, we’re reporting the scintillating story of the stress ball.

An Ancient Tradition

Two baoding balls held in hand

While the stress balls we know today are a relatively recent invention, the idea of an item that could be held or turned in the hand to relieve stress and tension has a much older history.

China’s Ming Dynasty, which began in 1368, saw the rise in popularity of Baoding balls, iron spheres designed to be rotated in the hand. Repeated rotations were intended to promote relaxation and build muscle strength.

As time went on, Baoding balls began to be mass-produced and made of higher-quality materials like jade. Often painted with designs to encourage health and relaxation, they were in high demand. Baoding balls continue to be produced and used today.

Setting the Stage for the Stress Ball

It wasn’t until the 1930s that the story of stress balls continued. Two significant developments occurred in that decade—the development of polyurethane and the study of stress.

With the onset of World War II, rubber was in high demand for the war effort, leading to a shortage. This set scientists on the search for a replacement material.

Bulldozer stress ball
The versatility of polyurethane allows for stress relievers to be made in a variety of shapes and styles.

And thus, polyurethane was born! A soft squishy foam, the material was used in a variety of commercial settings, including insulation and packaging. It would go on to be the basis for the modern stress ball we know and love today.

Researchers in the 1930s also began to consider stress from a scientific perspective. Early studies focused on the impact of extreme trauma. Post-war studies began to focus more on the stress caused by everyday events. In a rapidly changing world, stress became an inherent part of life, and science began to understand the true effects of stress on the body and mind.

Squeezable Stress Relief

What comes to mind when you think of the 1980s? Not only was the term “stressed out” born in the 80s, but the first object sold as a stress ball was, too.

In 1988, a TV writer named Alex Carswell was having a bad day. His work had driven him to a breaking point. So much so, that he threw a marker across the room and broke a framed picture of his mother. While the throwing sensation brought momentary relief, the broken picture was a downer.

Cantaloupe Stress Reliever
Food shapes, from fruits to tacos to bottles of wine, are a popular category of stress relievers.

So, Carswell decided that Americans needed an item that would be perfect for throwing in frustrated moments, but less likely to break things around you. Thus, Stressball was born. Carswell’s invention featured a microchip and speaker. When thrown, it made a sound similar to shattered glass.

Stressball may have been the first, but it certainly wasn’t the only stress relief item to enter the market. A variety of squeezable, throwable, and noisy items were sold over the next few years, all designed for harmless stress relief. What emerged victorious from this explosion of items were the simple, squishy, and soundless stress balls we’re accustomed to today.

Now, stress balls may be fun, but do they really relieve stress? A growing body of research says that they can. When we’re stressed, our muscles tense up. Squeezing an item like a stress ball activates our hand muscles. Releasing our grip allows those muscles to relax. Repeating this motion has been shown to relieve muscle tension and mental distress. And, squeezing can also help to channel stress and anxiety into a repetitive, subconscious motion, helping to clear and refocus the mind.

Marketing with Stress Balls

Branded Stress Reliever Spinal Column
A spinal column may seem like a strange shape for a stress ball, but it’s the perfect promotional tool for a chiropractor!

As stress reliever toys caught on, marketing gurus saw an opportunity to jump in on some fun branding. The success of stress balls as marketing tools led to the plethora of shapes available to decorate today. The variety feels endless, though some shapes (like animals, food items, and sports balls) may seem more endearing than others (like porta-potties and body parts).

However, even the oddest shaped stress balls have a natural brand partner, and in the right setting, can bring a smile to a recipient’s face. While stress balls may often be humorous, they have serious impact when it comes to branding.

Branded Stress Reliever Koala Bear

If you’re interested in adding stress balls to your marketing mix, we can help! Contact Sarah, our Promotional Specialist, or visit our online catalog today to find the perfect stress ball for your brand.

Like what you’ve read? Check out our other posts in the Fun History of Promotional Products Series!

Two Baoding Balls Photo by NewYorkStyledCheesecakes at English Wikipedia. Shared under CC BY-SA 3.0. Unedited.

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