Small rubber thing? Main squeeze

Feel that your pulling power is waning? Buy a stress ball

Ladies in sparkly T-shirts were handing out small, squishy, pink pigs at Brighton station this past week. Shamrocks, penguins, rhinos, UK flags, snowmen and hand grenades are also now available in small-squishy varieties. I was recently given a small, squishy orange. If you don't have a small, squishy thing somewhere on your desk, where have you been? Stress balls are taking over the world.

Stress balls are small chunks of polyurethane, which starts off in liquid form and is poured into moulds. You truly won't be interested in the rest of the process, but what comes out at the end is a cute, small-squishy thing about the size of a tennis ball, and apparently everyone loves them. The official point of them is to squeeze them to relieve stress (allegedly), but in fact they're office toys with a cunning marketing twist.

Promote Now, a co pany specialising in promotional marketing aids, offers a range of 500, which can be personalised with any logo or message, and if none of these happens to suit, you can order a bespoke design. Buy enough of them, and they'll cost you as little as 50p each. "People like to throw them round the office," says a spokesperson. The key to their success is the fiddle factor: "People like fiddling with things while they're thinking. That's very popular." Brighton's recent rash of stress pigs was down to a company called Pigsback.com, which sent out 35,000 of them in one weekend.

So, do they relieve stress? Unproven, says the psychologist Sandi Mann. "If you are stressed you have a lot of fight-or-flight energy with nowhere to go. Squeezing something hard might release some of it . . ." she says doubtfully.

The ubiquitous appeal of stress balls can manifest itself in unexpected ways. On a business trip to New Orleans, my husband found himself at a lap-dancing club, through absolutely no fault of his own, he claims. He happened to have half a dozen cute, small, squishy promotional animals about his person. He informed the young ladies that there was no way he would pay for their dubious services, but, in the spirit of international friendship, he had small-squishy animals aplenty that he was happy to pass on. His colleagues, ignored as they waved high-denomination dollar bills, watched in amazement as he was engulfed in an enthusiastic orgy of limbs, bosoms and flesh-coloured G-strings.