Writer-producer Mark Schwartz had just come from the Premiere Lounge at the Sundance Film Festival and was digging through his Hummer gift bag.
“I found a promotional T-shirt,” he said with disappointment, “but I couldn’t find the keys to a Hummer.”
While Schwartz was joking, his point was telling. A culture of giving swag -- the entertainment industry term for these giveaways -- has exploded in Hollywood and other pit stops on the Beautiful People circuit. The once lowly gift bag (think coffee mug, chocolate bar or product poster) has gone glitzy with jewelry, perfumes, spa treatments and travel, and A-, B- and even C-list celebrities want the goods.
This year’s gift bag for presenters at the music industry’s Grammy Awards included certificates for laser eye surgery, health club membership and acupuncture. Screen Actors Guild Award giveaways included a trip to a Caribbean island.
And it is not just Hollywood parties, New York soirees or Chicago charity events.
Millionaire Donald Trump’s recent marriage became a shrine to product placement, according to the New York Times, which reported how diamond merchants Graff gave Trump a $750,000 discount on a 15-carat, $1.5 million engagement ring.
“Only a fool would say, ’No thank you, I want to pay a million dollars more for a diamond,”’ Mr. Trump said in the Times.
Welcome to life among the haves and have-mores where new words have entered the popular vocabulary. Givers are called ”gifters,” receivers are “gifted.”
Bag ladiesThe rise began in the 1990s when product promoters realized the Academy Awards, or Oscars, which draw the biggest names in Hollywood such as Nicole Kidman and Leonardo DiCaprio, generated major headlines for designer gowns and tuxedos.
With brand names hot and getting hotter, promoters created a “swag suite,” where booty was distributed to celebrities who then mentioned the products on television and in magazines and newspapers. Everyone wanted to buy what the celebrities were wearing which, for the most part, was given to them for free.
Kelly Cutrone, whose 10-year-old public relations firm People’s Revolution has organized numerous swag suites during award shows like the Oscars and Golden Globes, has witnessed the acceleration of swag culture in the last five years.
“It’s proliferating in every market,” she says, “from sporting events to fashion shows to rock concerts to in-home dinner parties,” Cutrone said.
In the pioneering days many celebrities couldn’t pronounce designer names. “But it went from, ’Can I borrow this?’ to ’Can I keep it?’ to ’How much money are you going to pay me to wear this?”’ she said.
The gift bags are effective, in part, because there are no laws or regulations governing how they are promoted.
“If Charlize Theron and Scarlet Johansson are presenters at the Golden Globes,” Cutrone said, “and they gets bags with an MP3 and an IPod, technically, people affiliated with those companies have the right to say the stars have that product.”
Swag swoon?But some society watchers are starting to question whether someone like Paris Hilton needs to be showered with a pricey Escada coat, jade earrings and a digital camera just because her Louis Vuitton gift bag needs restocking?
At the recent Sundance Film Festival, Hilton was seen schlepping through a lounge sponsored by electronics maker Motorola Corp with a tote bag that overflowed with swag. Critics said she gave new meaning to the term “bag lady.”
The wedding of talk show host Star Jones produced such a freebie free-for-all that the New York tabloids labeled her “Bridezilla.”
Veteran corporate counselor Bob Dilenschneider, head of the Dilenschneider Group, is one who says swag grab is getting out of hand and reaching new levels of greed.
“Some investment banks are even using the gift bag to bring in business, effectively as a payoff. I have no problem if at a charity event you get a bag with a little perfume in it, but I do have a problem when it is timed to the direct sale of a product or a service or as an aggrandizement.”
Still, the purveyors of swag say the giveaway will go on.
“The United States is a new country. We have no royalty here. People aren’t going to emulate George and Laura Bush from a style perspective. They look to celebrities,” Cutrone said.