The Wedding Trend Couples Love and Guests Hate

Why do newlyweds seem to think people want custom wedding merch taking up space in cabinets and drawers for years to come?

An ornate box sits on a table surrounded by small packages wrapped in floral paper and ribbon tied in a bow.
An ornate box sits on a table surrounded by small packages wrapped in floral paper and ribbon tied in a bow.

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During peak wedding season, the junk drawer of someone with a large family or wide circle of friends might look like the inside of a swag bag from a newlywed-themed business conference. Sunglasses, koozies, matchbooks, bottle openers. A golf ball. A deck of playing cards. Items branded with various dates, names, and cutesy slogans (“Two of a kind!”). Small thank-yous from couples whose nuptials this person has attended, customized to reflect the day they shared together. It’s a nice thought. Right?

“The spoiler alert is that no, guests do not want them,” Jane Handel, a wedding planner in New York, confirmed to me over email. I reached out to her suspecting that I wasn’t the only one who didn’t find much use in, for example, a single piece of glassware emblazoned with someone else’s wedding date. (She encourages people to choose something consumable.) Now that I’m planning my own wedding, and inundated with ideas for what to provide to my guests, I’m stuck on the question of why couples seem to think their guests will want a commemorative tchotchke from their wedding taking up space in cabinets and drawers for years to come.

The intentions behind wedding favors are good. Guests tend to spend a lot of time, effort, and money to join a couple on their special day. They book flights and hotel rooms, they purchase gifts off a registry, they shell out cash for various pre-wedding events. They buy a new outfit, take time off from work, hire a babysitter. Those throwing the event naturally want to give a little something back.

The wedding industry is happy to provide a way to do so. The wedding favor qua tradition is said (by many wedding websites) to date back to 16th-century Europe, where the aristocracy gave bonbonnières—small decorative boxes containing various sweets—to their guests. Now attendees leave with just about anything that can be given a wedding-appropriate slogan: bags of coffee (“The perfect blend”), luggage tags (“The adventure begins”), plants (“Let love grow”). And websites such as Etsy, Minted, Zazzle, and the relative newcomer Partier make it easy to mass-produce gifts branded specifically for your special day.

But the well-meaning gesture doesn’t always land. This can be inferred from just about every result that comes up when one searches wedding favors on the modern go-to source for wedding tips: TikTok. A surprising number of the videos feature the word actually used almost as a pejorative: “wedding favors your guests will ACTUALLY use,” “Wedding favors I would actually take home.” Claire Roche, a California wedding planner, noted in one video that she often has to gather up all the unwanted favors at the end of the night. “Sometimes people will leave behind things that have—it’s sad, but—the couple’s name or date on it,” she told me, “because once you leave the wedding, to that person, it’s over.”

Insead of a physical favor, Shannon Detrick, who posts wedding tips on TikTok, recommends something she’s been seeing more of lately—charitable donations made by the couple on behalf of their guests. The wedding-planning website The Knot reports that the practice of giving wedding favors has decreased by 21 percent over the past five years “due in part to many becoming more mindful about sustainability.” The website recommends eco-friendly options for those with such concerns. And what’s more eco-friendly than a donation?

Unfortunately, though, it seems people might not want that either. Research done by Lisa Cavanaugh, an associate professor of marketing and behavioral science at the University of British Columbia, has found that gift-givers tend to misjudge how much people will appreciate socially responsible gifts like donations. Cavanaugh told me that recipients often see them  “more as a signal of what the person is saying about themselves.” As in: Aren’t I so good-hearted and charitable?

Even though Cavanugh hasn’t studied wedding favors specifically, her research might illuminate a fundamental disconnect at their core: Gift givers tend to think in terms of what a gift means to them, rather than what it will mean to the recipient. When giving a customized wedding favor, she said, the giver tends to think “very optimistically that people will see it and think fondly of the event.” People think about how this day is remarkably special to them, and how they’d like to provide something to their guests that commemorates the day’s specialness. They don’t necessarily think about what people might actually want, or branded favors they’ve received in the past that they may have guiltily thrown in the trash.

But for those couples who still wish to give a personally branded bottle opener that says, for example, “Love is brewing,” because you both really like beer, all might not be lost. Mary Steffel, an associate professor of marketing at Northeastern University, told me over email that her research shows that sharing something personal with guests can build connections. She pointed me toward two other studies, one of which showed that though people tend to prefer recipient-centric gifts, giver-centric gifts—that is, gifts that reflect something about the giver rather than the recipient—were associated with a stronger social connection between the two parties. Another showed that recipients like sentimentally valuable gifts more than givers tend to assume they will.

“All that said,” Steffel told me, “not all personalized wedding favors are enjoyed equally.” By way of example, she said she uses a pint glass with her friends’ names and wedding date on it every day, but hasn’t yet broken out a deck of cards featuring another couple’s dog. “I might be more inclined to grab a more neutral deck if I were hosting a game night.”

But almost everyone I spoke with stressed to me that one does not need to provide a wedding favor at all. Although traditional, the tokens are optional and may even be declining in popularity anyway. I’m still at a loss about what favor to give guests at my own wedding, or whether to give one at all. I don’t want to spend money contributing to a landfill, or foist items on my friends and family that they’ll keep only out of guilt. But, you know, I’m just so excited about commemorating the day. I guess I’m leaning toward either a life-size cardboard cutout of myself or a framed copy of this article, signed by me.