The Sharpie’s Indelible Mark On Commerce (And, Well, #SharpieGate)

The Sharpie’s Indelible Mark On Commerce

September is always a big month for the Sharpie. With back-to-school in full swing, Sharpies are popular favorites on supply lists nationwide. That means for the last several weeks, they’ve sat proudly on store shelves waiting for parents to put them into a shopping cart during the frantic shopping sprints that are the hallmark of the season.

At this point in September, though, with most kids back in school, the Sharpie’s annual time in the sun could be drawing to a close.

But as it turned out, 2019 is not a normal year.

“SharpieGate” has given the pen-slash-marker a whole new reason to shine.

The movement started last week when the president tweeted a warning about Hurricane Dorian and said that in addition to Florida, “South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia and Alabama will most likely be hit …”

As it turned out, Alabama was not on the list – so the NWS quickly tweeted a correction.

But on Wednesday (Sept. 4), weather reporters and Twitter users noticed that during a video of the president talking in front of an NWS map, it appeared as though someone had added a circle on the path of the storm track that included Alabama.

The tool of art? A Sharpie marker, of course – since its ink is indelible.

Who was holding that indelible tool became the question, and #SharpieGate was born.

Our goal, though, is not to get in the middle of the “SharpieGate whodunit,” but to explain the story of Sharpie and its interesting, if not more checkered, commerce history.

Everything You Ever Needed to Know About the Sharpie

The Sharpie has been around since 1964, when it was introduced to the world as a brand name for the permanent marker brought to market by Sanford Ink Company. And, as five generations of parents can attest, the Sharpie has always lived up to its promise. If your child colors a wall with one of them, you’re going to have to repaint it, because it is never, ever washing off.

But it was also a unique product, as the first pen-style permanent marker ever on the market. Even in its earlier days, it attracted celebrity endorsement: Johnny Carson was an early fan. Incidentally, he wasn’t paid – he just really liked Sharpies.

And though Sharpie rolled out various improvements in the 1970s and 1980s – the fine-tipped Sharpie, the extra-fine-tip Sharpie – but it wasn’t until its parent firm was acquired by the Newell Companies (later Newell Brands) in the 1990s that the product’s golden era began in earnest.

Pushed indirectly, by the internet. Sites like eBay (and eventually a host of imitators) pushed the sale of memorabilia to a whole new level. Collectors like to have their goods signed whenever possible, which left them in the market for something with a pen tip that could write on just about everything with virtually indelible ink. Sharpie also began to drastically scale up its marketing efforts, particularly by sponsoring athletes in the NFL and PGA – and athletes began boosting Sharpie because it was so easy to sign things with.

By the year 2002, there were over 200 million Sharpies on the loose in the United States – enough for approximately every American household to have two. President Trump is not even the first occupant of the Oval Office to be a major fan: former President George W. Bush would sign top government documents with them, and also had markers specially made with his name printed on them for both the White House and Camp David.

“Sharpies are good for the president of the United States or the president of the PTA,” Howard Heckes, president of Sanford Brands of North America, reportedly once commented.

Sharpies, in fact, are so popular and beloved among consumers that they have even caught the eye of scammers.

Two years ago, rumors of a Sharpie giveaway celebrating the “12th anniversary” of the product made the rounds on Facebook. The scam required users to share the link with their friends and user groups and to like a Sharpie Facebook page. In return, Facebookers were promised a set of Sharpies in 24 colors.

As of 2016, Sharpie was far older than 12 years and was not in any way connected to the scheme – it was just another spammy Facebook campaign designed to harvest user data from innocent marker enthusiasts. Of which, notably, there are many – over 100,000 people had shared the post when Sharpie officially announced on their website and social media streams that they had nothing to do with it.

An Unexpected Retail Boost 

With back-to-school season behind us, one might reasonably expect that Sharpie is about to take a step back out of the spotlight. But instead, it seems an entirely new commerce life is opening up for the popular markers – or at least an analog of them.

As the week ended, President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign announced it has added Trump-branded permanent markers to its web store.

“Buy the official Trump marker, which is different than every other marker on the market, because this one has the special ability to drive @CNN and the rest of the fake news crazy!” Campaign Manager Brad Parscale tweeted.

Will it be a runaway commerce hit? Stranger things have happened in the world of election schwag – after all, we never would have predicted that red trucker hats would become the go-to standard for politically inspired fashion, so we can’t pretend to have special insight.

But the Sharpie is a beloved American institution. Customers have had fistfights in the aisles of Office Depot over it. Winning the presidency is one thing, but offering a retail competitor to the Sharpie is quite another.



The How We Shop Report, a PYMNTS collaboration with PayPal, aims to understand how consumers of all ages and incomes are shifting to shopping and paying online in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our research builds on a series of studies conducted since March, surveying more than 16,000 consumers on how their shopping habits and payments preferences are changing as the crisis continues. This report focuses on our latest survey of 2,163 respondents and examines how their increased appetite for online commerce and digital touchless methods, such as QR codes, contactless cards and digital wallets, is poised to shape the post-pandemic economy.