Our Swag Bags, Ourselves

Does everyone get something out of the $200,000 gift bags given out at the Oscars each year? Totes.

Oscar-shaped chocolates for the 2016 goodie bags (Mario Anzuoni / Reuters)

Was it the Vampire Breast Lift? Or maybe the Haze Dual Vaporizer? Or maybe the Nuelle Fiera vibrator? Whatever it was (it was probably the vibrator), 2016 has proved to be the year that a longstanding Oscar tradition—the absurdly expensive and also just absurd gift bags handed out to losing nominees—seems, officially, to have Gone Too Far: Last week, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences sued Distinctive Assets, the marketing firm that has long provided the sassy swag, for trademark infringement.

The lawsuit contended, essentially, that the party favors to end all party favors—and, more specifically, their vampy/vapey/vibey contents, this year said to be worth $232,000 in all—were giving the awards show a bad name. The so-called “Everybody Wins” bags were dirty alloys, basically, to Oscar’s gold.

So it’s both ironic and fitting that the Academy’s complaint has had the effect of bringing even more attention than usual to the existence and the excesses of the gift bags. And also to the role the bags have played in the strange sub-economies of the ultimate American awards show. “The Oscar Gift Bags Are So Lavish That Even the Academy Is Embarrassed,” New York magazine declared. “Oscar sues over unauthorized (and unsavory) swag bags,” USA Today had it. Those came on top of the many, many articles that had simply catalogued the contents of the bags. Yahoo made a video “Dissecting the Outrageously Valuable, Not to Mention Ridiculous, Oscars Gift Bags.” GOOD offered its own look, “Inside the $200,000 ‘Unofficial’ 2016 Oscars Gift Bag”—under the ambiguous rubric of “poptimism.” Blasting News took things to their logically Marxist conclusion: “THE RICH AND OSCAR-FAMOUS ARE SPOILED WHILE THOUSANDS GO WITHOUT.”

This would be the case with or without swag bags; still, of course, the reality is more complicated than the-rich-getting-richer-and-also-firmer-of-skin. Many celebrities, after all, end up giving their gift bags away to charity. Some others auction them off. (George Clooney’s bag recently fetched $45,000.) One—Sandra Oh—has outright refused to accept the bag. And many other bag recipients do use their contents, or at least select parts of them. (Gwyneth Paltrow reportedly used a gift certificate for a stay in a Mexican resort, part of her 2004 Oscar presenter bag, for her honeymoon with Chris Martin.) But while, from his perspective, celebrities pampering themselves with the products he assembles is a nice thing, Lash Fary, the owner of Distinctive Assets and the assembler of the bags in question, told me, it’s not really the thing. Instead, as he puts it: “This is just straight-up marketing.”

It’s also marketing that goes beyond the typical, IRL product placement. “Unless the givers are permitted to promote and market the fact that their products or services are in the gift bag or they are allowed to photograph the recipient using the gift, I think that this is not a good use of the givers’ money,” Michael Stone, the chair and co-founder of Beanstalk, told Forbes. So while marketers may well give products away in the vague hope that celebrities might use them—and, more specifically, that celebrities might be photographed using them—they’re also banking on a more guaranteed return. They’re calculating that news outlets, indignant about and inspired by the bags’ contents, will write about them. They’re calculating, essentially, that the media will do their promotion for them.

It’s a calculation that, this year, led to headlines like “HERE’S EVERYTHING INSIDE THE $232,000 OSCARS GIFT BAG” (Harper’s Bazaar) and “Oscar Gift Bag Swag: $200K Worth of Luxury Toilet Paper, Sex Toys, and Armpit Mops” (Breitbart) and “Inside the Absurd $200K Oscar Gift Bag: Vapes, a Trip to Israel, and a ‘Vampire Breast Lift’” (The Daily Beast). It led to stories like GQ’s write-up of this year’s bags, which not only listed, but taxonomized, the bags’ contents—from the “Basic AF” (a $12 lint remover) to the “Trashy, but We’ll Take It” (personalized M&Ms for $300) to the “From The Price is Right School of Trashy” (a $54,000 private walking tour of Japan) to the “Lawsuit-Inspiring Trashy” ($5,530 worth of plastic surgery) to the “Actual Trash” (a $134 Caolion Ultimate Pore Care gift set) to, finally, a single “Respectable” entry: a 10,000-meal donation made in the nominee’s name to an animal shelter or rescue of his or her choice.

GQ’s thing on the bags—though it could have been most anyone’s thing on the bags—is good Internet #content. It is amusing. It speaks to the zeitgeist. It inspires indignation on the part of the reader. And, in all that, it convenes human attention so that commercial messages might be sold on its platform. At the same time, though—and just as readily—the detailed list GQ has provided functions as free publicity for the brands and products included in Fary’s 2016 gift bag. So do the lists GQ’s many fellow outlets provided. Did you know about Vampire Breast Lifts before this year’s cycle of Oscar Bag Articles mocked their existence? I really, really hope not.

Which is to say that the gift bags are not really bags. (They’re not, strictly, “bags” to begin with: They’re a collection of small items and gift certificates collected in roller duffel bags, Fary told me. They’re sometimes given out on-site, but more often couriered, this being Hollywood, from assistant to assistant.) The bags are, basically, press releases in the form of party favors. They are fodder for discussion and storytelling. Fary calls himself the “Sultan of Swag.” Others call him a “guerrilla marketer.” What he is more accurately, though, is a pitchman whose medium is objects rather than words.

And that might offer an answer for why 2016’s “bag” proved to be the final straw for the Oscars: The bags became a little too good at doing their jobs. The Oscars have long given out gift bags—in this case, starting in 2001, as “sort of a children’s party favor for the nominees and presenters.” When the Academy ended its official swag-giving practice in 2006, the move was based not on inequality grounds, it seems, but on the fact that the IRS decided that the bags should be taxed. And, by extension, on the fact that people have a funny way of being less grateful for free stuff when the stuff comes wrapped in several thousand dollars’ worth of tax burdens.

Distinctive Assets stepped in with its “unofficial” bags. And while those every-year-more-excessive bags might not have offered Vampire Breast Lifts, they did offer tote-able absurdities like condoms, Lasik eye surgery, mink eyelashes, high-def televisions, and $120 maple syrup. Last year’s bags included a vibrator.

So, yes, this year’s version of the bags may have been extra-objectionable because they were worth more—according to Distinctive Assets’s math, anyway, which seems to take an extremely liberal approach to cost estimation—than ever before. But what was even more objectionable, at least as far as the Academy is concerned, was the way the media played its annual role. The Academy’s complaint suggests that headlines like “HERE’S EVERYTHING INSIDE THE $232,000 OSCARS GIFT BAG” and “Oscar Gift Bag Swag: $200K Worth of Luxury Toilet Paper, Sex Toys, and Armpit Mops” and “Inside the Absurd $200K Oscar Gift Bag: Vapes, a Trip to Israel, and a ‘Vampire Breast Lift’” all contributed to “trademark infringement, false advertising, and trademark dilution.” They emphasized the aggressive luxury and absurdity of the bags, but de-emphasized the fact that the bags are, technically, assembled for the Oscars rather than by them.

You could call all that, as Fary does, “lazy reporting.” And Distinctive Assets’s press release, to be sure, notes that the bags in question have been “independently produced for over a decade by the founders of swag at Distinctive Assets.” Media outlets, many of them, did ignore that nuance. They focused, instead, on the thing that will get clicks: the outrage. The indignation. The words “Vampire breast lift.” The Oscar bags: You will not believe what is in them this year! The Oscar bags: Watch them extend a diamond-swathed middle finger to Bernie Sanders!

But the outlets, of course, were also doing exactly what they were supposed to in all this: getting angry, and turning their anger into #content. Just as they do every year. They were creating their own entries into an annual mini-genre: the Oscar Bag Outrage Story, which delights in the gross excesses of Hollywood and those of the awards-show industrial complex. So opulent! So sexist! So weird! The genre reads, overall, a little like what might happen if Karl Marx had lived long enough to read through a SkyMall.

And it’s a genre that exists at all, of course, for the same reason any genre will: There’s a market for it, year after year. (The bags are “fit for Hollywood royalty and coveted by the hoi polloi,” a 2005 Bloomberg article noted.) The bags are perfect fodder for a media system that increasingly treats outrage as a kind of currency: Here is a bag of stuff—listable, illustratable, thinkpiece-able—that raises all manner of hackle. Write about the bag, and the media get free clicks, and the brands get free media. Everybody Wins, as it were.

If it’s a strategy, it’s not a new one. PR that does its work by causing indignation—madvertising, you could call it—has long been part of the marketer’s quiver. The Bloomingdale’s ad that made light of sex and consent. The Budweiser ad that did the same. The GoDaddy Super Bowl ads that treated women like inconveniently animate blow-up dolls. The #branded tweets reacting to current events in unsavorily self-promotional ways. The off-color jokes and the #toomuches and the #toosoons: They take advantage, ultimately, of the vast supply of free media that comes from think pieces and hot takes and, in general, outrage.

Some of them do that, of course, in spite of themselves. Some of these spots are mistakes, pure and simple, the result of marketers failing to understand their customers or, perhaps, understanding them a little too well. Many of them, though—most of them, to be both generous and cynical about it—are the result of a very contemporary take on the old adage that “there’s no such thing as bad publicity”: They figure that, in this age of pessimism and irony and knee-jerk indignation—in this age of media that so deeply incentivizes the hot take—pissing people off is a really, really good way to get people to talk about you.

The Oscar bags’ marketers have made a similar gamble. And it has so far, whatever the future of those bags may be, paid off. Outrage sells. Especially when it’s given away for free.