The 1999 movie Office Space is a cult classic which, if you haven’t seen, is something you really need to rectify in the near future. Despite the fact that it’s nearly twenty years old (oy), the comedy is still a biting critique of white-collar corporate America and the general ineptitude of office printers. The protagonist, a software developer named Peter Gibbons, hates his job, hates his boss, and probably doesn’t like his girlfriend either, but still plays the role of corporate drone without much question.
The same is true for Peter’s coworker, a mumbling wallflower named Milton Waddams, pictured above. While not a core character, Milton is key to the plot — which, as fans of the movie will attest, can also be said for his red Swingline stapler, also pictured above. Toward the beginning of the movie, Milton is on the phone (watch the clip here), muttering about the time the company switched from Swingline staplers to Boston-brand ones, to his disapproval. He responded by keeping his red Swingline, which on occasion goes missing because it’s superior to the other staplers. Milton makes further reference to the stapler at various other points throughout the film (here’s an example). The red Swingline stapler is as important as a stapler can possibly be.Nowadays, the red Swingline stapler is pretty popular. It’s one of the bestsellers in Amazon’s “desk staplers” category, despite the fact that it runs about twice that of other staplers. It’s sometimes suggested as a gift idea by the online retail giant — if that link above doesn’t show it as one, here’s a screenshot. And as of this writing, the most popular version of the red Swingline has more than 1,700 reviews on Amazon and averages 4.7 stars, and is the #1 best seller in the “Electric & Battery Office Staplers” category. It’s become a premium item.
But this isn’t the tale of a wildly successful product placement. Per the Wall Street Journal, Mike Judge, the writer and director of the movie, approached Swingline about a sponsorship, but the stapler giant turned him down:
Swingline executives didn’t even recognize the marketing opportunity when the movie’s producers approached them back in 1999. The company figured its mainstay customers were unlikely to trade up and declined the pitch. “Bright-red staplers aren’t typically marketed in bulk to big companies,” says Bill Carvell, a vice president at ACCO Brands Inc., the parent of Swingline and a unit of Fortune Brands Inc., of Lincolnshire, Ill. “Compared to black and platinum, it wouldn’t have sold.”
Judge decided to go ahead with the red stapler gag anyway.
But sales of the red stapler didn’t shoot through the roof right away, for a very good reason: Swingline didn’t make them yet. The movie gave rise to such overwhelming popularity, though, that in April of 2002, Swingline began selling its first red stapler — an office product which, if it weren’t for Office Space, would have never existed.
So, what did Milton really own? It was a black Swingline stapler, spray-painted red. And it was indeed special — in fact, it was one-of-a-kind.
Take the Quiz: Finish the Office Space quote.