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After years of being in the Oscars’ swag shadow, the Emmys have ascended to a new level of freebie.all it celebrity outreach.
Call it swag or graft. Or call it greasing the palm that feeds you. Whatever you want to call it, “freebie-ism” – that delightful-but-decadent practice of loading celebrities, editors, stylists and their adjacents with oodles of pricey free goods is not going away.
There was a time when luxury brands considered the Television Academy of Arts & Sciences’ annual pat-on-the-back fest as “beneath” the Oscars, even the Golden Globes, because it lacked big-screen prestige and worldwide viewership. Cut to 2002, where elite brands such as Judith Leiber, Lancôme, Carolina Herrera and Dior are all participating in some hefty Emmy glad-handing.
Lisa Wells, head of marketing for Judith Leiber, who’s racked up many a success outfitting Oscar- and Globe-nominated actresses with bags and getting hits in magazines all over the world, has helped reposition Leiber as the expensive arm candy of young and chic celebs.
This year, Wells worked the Emmys for the first time with about 80 goody bags. She also ensured 10 Emmy-nominated actresses, including Jennifer Aniston, Rachel Griffiths, and Sarah Jessica Parker, received personally engraved Judith Leiber sterling silver charm bracelets. The bracelets cannot be purchased in any of the brand’s four boutiques.
“The thing is, our bags are so expensive, we can’t give them out,” Wells explained. “The bracelets are a small way to thank people who’ve worn us. And the attitudes of younger customers change when they see a celebrity wearing something.”
And there is no telling how much spillover reaches celebs’ stylists, publicists and even the odd friend they might drag along to a fitting. Very often, all of the above are pelted with purses, sunglasses, flowers, shoes and jewelry, just for the courtesy of passing along items or info to their clients.
“It used to be that stylists were sent the swag,” said stylist Deborah Waknin, who dressed Rachel Griffiths, Anjelica Houston and Marg Helgenberger for the Emmys this year. “Now the gifts are going more to publicists, because they work with these clients all year long.”
Much has been made of the legendary Oscar basket handed over to presenters, a “basket” only in a manner of speaking. Not to be outdone, the Emmy basket is valued at around $25,000 and stuffed to the gills with, among other things, Dooney & Bourke satchels, John Hardy jewelry, John Lobb shoes, Lancôme products, vouchers for a week at the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel in Hawaii, a shiny new Nokia phone and a year’s membership at the Sports Club L.A.
“You can’t imagine the amount of vendors pitching to be part of it,” said Suzanne Gutierrez, director of corporate relations at the Television Academy. “I mean, the Emmy basket goes on its own promotional tour! It appeared on the ‘Today Show with Katie Couric,’ then ‘Entertainment Tonight,’ then ‘Extra’ and E!. So it gets major press — and it even gets commercial results.”
For example, Nokia launched a model 3 years ago that Martin Short scored. When pal Tom Hanks saw it, he wanted it.
“We told him, ‘We’ll give you the phone if you draft a letter to Nokia on your letterhead,’” recalled Gutierrez. “That translated into sales and advertising for them. These days, celebrities equal sales.”
Perhaps that’s how relative swag newcomers Kari Feinstein and Melissa Lerner, who call their promotional company The Cabana, talked vendors like Christian Dior Beaute and The Greenhouse Spa, plus smaller companies like Stephanie Johnson handbags, Charles David footwear and MOP hair products, into participating in a two-day mega-suite (read: “giant giveaway”) at the Chateau Marmont. On Friday, the place was busier than the Long Island Expressway.
“We felt like the Emmys weren’t getting enough attention with amenities and free gifts,” Feinstein said. “Even celebrities will turn up for free hair product. They’re like kids in a candy store. And the clients believe they are getting their money’s worth — or they wouldn’t keep doing it.” Indeed, Debra Messing spent some two hours basking in the suite’s swag and services.
It’s not just celebs or stylists that have come to expect a glossy handout at night’s end, however. Swag expectations have risen even at the lower reaches of the Hollywood food chain. Socialites and entertainment industry spouses are now expecting, even demanding, the same kinds of goodies.
“There was a recent party thrown by a luxury accessories brand,” recalled fashion PR and stylist Isaac Joseph, whose Emmy clients included Lisa Kudrow this year.
“They had a lovely dinner at a restaurant for VIPs, and the next day, I had e-mails from a few people saying, ‘All there was in my gift bag was a copy of a magazine. Obviously, the gift MUST have fallen out!’”
Meanwhile, Ted Kruckel of Ted Ink, a bicoastal PR man who is often credited with starting the whole “super-suite” trend at the Oscars — and who even refers to himself mockingly as “the king of swag” — has a little disdain for what he considers to be marketing imitators.
“They’re all knocking me off,” he whined. “But our thing [the company had a suite at the Avalon Hotel with Erica Courteney jewelry and Carolina Herrera fragrances, among others] is organization. And a classy atmosphere. People knock the suite thing, they say it’s like the ‘Oscarmart,’ a department store of freebies. But that’s what happens when hotels let you hang signs outside your door. It’s not a trade show!”
Nonetheless, it’s safe to say that Kruckel views the swag machine as a necessary evil.
“Sure, the products get press — but that’s not all. You have to show off your brand to people who make a difference. It’s not just about freebies. Suites full of product are about branding and celebrity outreach. You’re not that good if you get them to show up once. It’s about repeat relationships.”
And all that fabulous free stuff.