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Swagland

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David Weddle last wrote for the magazine about his daughter's college course work in film theory.

Swagland. It’s not a mythical over-the-rainbow realm, an Eastern European country, a theme park. You might call it a state of mind, a wondrous alternate universe concocted by publicists, funded by corporations eager for media coverage of their wares and frequented by journalists who have cast off concerns about conflicts of interest and embraced a new creed of conspicuous consumption.

In Swagland, the streets are paved with freebies, from promotional T-shirts, CDs and DVDs, to designer clothing, jewelry and perfume, to spa treatments, Broadway show tickets and suites in five-star hotels, to cellphones, laptops and luxury sports cars on loan. Travel writers accept free trips to exotic foreign lands. Automotive reviewers take junkets to Switzerland or the sun-dappled hills of Italy to drive the latest high-end roadsters. Entertainment hacks hobnob with stars and directors at the Four Seasons in Los Angeles. High-tech audio and video reviewers max out their home-entertainment centers with LCD HDTV screens, surround-sound systems and five-digit turntables, which they keep for months at a time--for research purposes. Surfing journalists travel to remote South Pacific atolls and stay with supermodels on “floating Four Seasons” luxury cruisers where the champagne never stops flowing.

Fashionistas have long been infamous for raking in the loot--the currency of Swagland. Designers lavish magazine editors with the latest styles because they’re “celebrities in their own right,” explains an editor at a major fashion daily. “They’re gifted quite a bit because they are friends with these designers and they have a lot of access. They may get photographed with those items, and that influences what people buy. All the top editors take free clothes.”

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In recent years, Los Angeles has become the R&D; capital of swag culture. The now-ubiquitous promotional gift bag grew out of Hollywood’s plethora of award ceremonies and premiere parties. A gift bag may contain a T-shirt or coffee mug, or it might be crammed with thousands of dollars worth of goods. Whatever it may hold, the gift bag has an uncanny power to bring out the greedy 2-year-old in some members of the media. Many have come to view it not as a perk but a birthright. “When I’m holding an event,” says Susie Dobson of the Los Angeles firm Susie Dobson Global PR, “the magazine editors call and ask if there’s going to be a gift bag. ‘Will there be gift bags?’ Yes. ‘Will they be good?’ Yes. ‘Oh, great! I’ll be there.’ ”

At some events, journalists are allowed to pack their own gift bags. If the “merch” runs low, things can get ugly. “At the 2003 Environmental Media Awards,” says freelance journalist Kyle Roderick, “there was a frenzy at the booth for Under the Canopy, which is this organic fiber fashion line. There was a jostling fight....People were yelling, ‘I want my T-shirt!’ There were some shoulder blows. The sign was up that said ‘Please take one.’ People were grabbing three or four or five.”

The abundance of swag fuels a thriving underground economy. Writers fence their T-shirts, designer duds and movie and automotive promotional memorabilia to a loose network of used-clothing stores (such as Decades in L.A.), entrepreneurs and Internet vendors. “I have editors calling me all the time and bringing me bags of stuff--designer shoes, jewelry, dresses, everything from Chanel to Gucci,” says Keni Valenti, owner of Keni Valenti Retro-Couture, a vintage designer clothing store in New York’s Garment Center.

Some journalists steal swag outright from photo shoot sets or magazine fashion closets. “I’ve had editors call me up and say, ‘I have two fur coats here in a bag. I’m at 38th and 7th Avenue, right on the corner. If you can bring me X amount of dollars in cash, they’re yours,’ ” Valenti says. “I said to one editor, ‘What exactly are you going to say to the company?’ She said, ‘I’ll just send back the bag empty and blame it on the messenger.’ ”

Others shake down merchants. Mary Norton, designer of Moo Roo handbags, was flabbergasted when an anchor for a prominent Los Angeles newscast walked into her showroom during the 2003 Oscar season and pointed to three of her creations. He told her that Moo Roo would never be mentioned on his show--ever--if she didn’t give them to him.

Anne Rainey Rokahr, director of Red PR in New York, had a similar experience. A magazine writer offered to promote her clients’ products on a TV morning show if Rokahr would pay her. “I was shocked and insulted,” Rokahr says.

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She’s not alone. The guardians of journalistic ethics are horrified and dismayed by this subversion of all the values they hold dear. “There are no ifs, ands or buts about it, you put yourself in a compromising position if you accept any gift or free trip or anything from somebody you’re writing about,” says Edwin Guthman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and former editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer and national editor of the Los Angeles Times, who is now a senior lecturer at USC’s Annenberg School. “It’s something that a self-respecting journalist shouldn’t do. There isn’t any question about it, it’s wrong. I’m sorry to hear that it’s fairly prevalent.”

Ethicists argue that the proliferation of swag has undercut the integrity of the press, blurred the lines between advertising and editorial and encouraged some publications to mislead their readership. “Very few readers have any idea how editorial staffs decide what gets reported on,” says Jeffrey Seglin, an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston who writes a weekly column on ethics for the New York Times. “They don’t know what the policies are at the magazines about accepting freebies. Readers need to be aware of this issue, especially when they’re reading travel pieces and product reviews. There should be a clear distinction between what’s advertising and what’s editorial. Because when you purchase a magazine, you presume you are buying objective editorial. But that’s not always the reality.”

The perception that journalists can be bought contributes to an overall distrust of the media. A recent Gallup poll found that only 21% of those surveyed rated newspaper reporters’ ethical standards as high or very high. Journalists ranked lower than bankers, auto mechanics, elected officials and nursing home operators. Kelly McBride, the ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute, a training school for professional journalists in St. Petersburg, Fla., laments that the press is “losing ground” in the battle for the public’s respect, and believes that swag is a factor. “For people who are concerned about media bias, it is one more straw on the camel’s back.”

For publicists who practice giveaway marketing, however, such hand-wringing is futile, even a little comical. As far as they’re concerned, the battle’s already been won. The glittering utopia of Swagland is governed by one supreme precept, and Kelly Cutrone, founder of the firm People’s Revolution, sums it up: “Here’s the deal: Everything’s a commercial.”

The age of ethical relativism

The rise of swag culture is no accident, according to mcbride. “Corporations are spending a higher percentage of their annual budgets on marketing, and larger portions of those budgets are directed specifically at journalists, because marketing executives realize that ink on any given product is better than advertising,” she says. “We’ve always known that, but they realize now, particularly in this age of an inundation of advertising, that advertising is limited in its ability to reach an audience. It’s much more effective to create the elusive buzz about a product that everyone’s after.”

And the schizophrenic ethics policies of American publications make them an easy target. Many magazines and tabloids either turn a blind eye or encourage their writers to score freebies as a method of cutting expenses. The Robb Report, Motor Trend and Powder routinely send their contributors on junkets. Many others have strict rules against it. Travel + Leisure posts its policy in each issue, stating that its writers do not accept free trips. Most major newspapers and news magazines forbid employees and freelancers to accept merchandise or services from potential subjects, and some high-end glossies--Playboy, Harper’s Magazine, Forbes, Fortune--have similar policies.

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But even publications that enforce strict ethics policies do not have entirely clean hands. Most, including the Los Angeles Times, commission stories from freelance writers who operate as independent contractors. Freelancers are the migrant farmworkers of journalism--cheap labor that fills the gaps left by editorial downsizing and dwindling advertising revenue. As they scramble from publication to publication to make a living, some practice ethical relativism. If they’re writing a story for a newspaper where accepting giveaways is forbidden, they adhere to that policy. But when they’re on assignment for a lifestyle magazine that encourages them to accept free hotel rooms and airfare to cut expenses, they shift into high freebie mode. Thus, even the most scrupulous publications end up employing freelancers who may have accepted copious swag on other assignments.

“There is an entire set of problems that comes with freelancers that does not come with staff writers, because there’s a limited amount of control you can have over them,” observes Stephen Randall, deputy editor of Playboy and an adjunct faculty member at USC’s Annenberg School. “You don’t know what freelancers are doing on other assignments. You don’t know what hidden agendas they might have.”

Some editors worry about ethics creep. Rick Holter, arts editor for the Dallas Morning News, points out that if an automaker decides to debut a new model in Germany, “there’s no way my paper is going to pay for me to go to Germany.” But what happens if five freelancers take the junket and come back with terrific stories, which they then submit to the paper? “If you’re the car reviewer at Dallas Morning News, you look bad. Here’s a freelancer coming in with a great story that you didn’t get. Editors get tempted not to ask the tough questions of the freelancers they’re buying something from.”

Even more problematic are the pseudo-ethics policies of some publications. “One of the worst things that happens is when there is a policy and the publications don’t enforce it,” says Seglin. “On paper it may say, ‘We will not do this.’ But the staff and the freelancers see that everybody takes freebies and no one enforces the ethics code. It sends a message that the code is worthless.”

Last month the editorial staffs of Jane, Details, Women’s Wear Daily and W were banned from receiving gifts “of value” from advertisers. The New York Daily News reported that rebellious employees of Fairchild Publications planned to circumvent the ban by having publicists mail swag to their home addresses. Fairchild spokeswoman Andrea Kaplan averred that this would be against company policy and was quoted as saying, “We are not aware that this is happening.”

Truth in labeling

Many lifestyle scribes shrug off traditional ethics with the ra-tionalization that they aren’t really journalists. Julie Logan, a former editor for Glamour who has written for Self and InStyle, refers to fashion and beauty magazines as “service books.” “I don’t consider service books to be journalism,” Logan says. “I consider it copy writing with a narrative. The function of a service book is to deliver readers to the advertisers. If the advertisers could find a way to put the magazine out without writers, they would. We’re there because of their largess, not the other way around.”

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Yet the mastheads of service books list editors and correspondents and look identical to those of hard news publications. “They have all the trappings of regular journalism,” McBride says. “They’re doing what passes for consumer journalism--writing about products, places and things that people spend money on.” And when consumers purchase a magazine, Seglin argues, “they expect objectivity. They don’t expect the magazine to show favoritism. As readers, we want consumer journalists to do the legwork and review all of the available products, not just the ones they got for free.”

Logan thinks service book readers could care less about the intricacies of objectivity. “These are people who look at advertorial the same way as they would editorial. These are not rocket scientists.”

McBride counters that readers would care if they knew that not all magazines adhere to the same ethical standards. “If you’re about to spend a lot of money on a vacation in a foreign country and are trying to decide what hotels to stay at, you would certainly want to know if a reviewer is raving about a place because he got a free room, or because he really did his homework on all the hotels in that area.”

Seglin believes the solution is truth in labeling. Magazines should disclose their policies on freebies on the table of contents or masthead. “If editors argue that it’s not a big deal to accept gifts and it doesn’t affect the integrity of their reporters, then why not tell the reader exactly what your policy is? Then the readers can make an informed decision about how to interpret the magazine’s content.”

But publications that allow acceptance of gifts have little or no incentive to do any such thing. McBride thinks there will always be a spectrum of publications and writers who take swag, and she sees this as an inevitable byproduct of a free market society. “Part of the beauty of American journalism is it’s not licensed. Standards are voluntarily applied. There is no regulation,” she says. “So I think the only thing we can do is put as much peer pressure as we can on our brethren and, in the spirit of a free market, give the readers the information they need to make intelligent choices.”

The history of swag

One of the most brilliant tactical breakthroughs in swag culture was developed in Los Angeles. In the late 1990s, publicists realized that the Academy Awards--a fashion vortex that draws the world’s finest designers and jewelers and the international press together for one dizzying media-saturated weekend--presented an unprecedented opportunity to raise awareness for their clients’ products. Thus the “swag suite” was born. Consortiums of designers rented out entire floors of such chic hotels as the Chateau Marmont, Raffles L’ Ermitage and Le Meridien, and filled the suites with samples of their wares. They enticed celebrities and their stylists--and the media--with free champagne, facials, massages, makeup and hair styling, yoga classes and, of course, gift bags. The concept proved fantastically successful.

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“Have you ever gone to a 99-Cents store on a welfare payday?” asks Kelly Cutrone. “It’s basically like that. [Writers] will try to get four extra gift bags--one for their nanny, one for their sister in Oklahoma and one just in case they need to give it away for a Christmas present.”

Cutrone’s company, People’s Revolution, has organized swag suites during the Oscars and the Golden Globes, and she’s seen media greed escalate with each passing year. “It’s gotten to the point where the vendors have to nail the stuff down. We’ve had to create a color-coded gift band system. The different editors and writers won’t really know they’re a part of it until they arrive. There will be different color codes: a silver bracelet, a gold bracelet and a white bracelet. The gold bracelet would be the highest rank. That means: This person is very, very credible and has a lot of power and you should gift accordingly. The silver one might mean: Give them a T-shirt. The white one is: Don’t give them anything. They just need to be in here to feel important and we need their body to fill the space.”

The swag suites proved so successful that they soon popped up at the Grammys and New York and L.A.’s fashion weeks. At the Sundance Film Festival the swag suites have exploded into swag lodges, lounges and houses sponsored by Michelob, Skyy Vodka, Mystic Tan, Gap, Chrysler, Diesel, Tommy Hilfiger, Reebok, Ray-Ban and Black & Decker. Last year Volkswagen offered morning yoga classes, treated celebs and select members of the press to free rides around town in its luxury Phaeton sedan and handed out $1,000 gift bags. The once sleepy main street of Park City, Utah, which used to host a quiet counterculture film festival, has become a gaudy carnival midway where New York fashionistas such as publicist Lara Shriftman hawk their clients’ wares and writers for Women’s Wear Daily, Us Weekly and the New York Post’s Page Six hammer out exultant prose about the swagathon.

Juicy Couture is a textbook example of how swag suite marketing can propel a fledgling company into the limelight almost overnight. Founded in L.A. in 1994 by Gela Nash-Taylor--wife of John Taylor, bass player for Duran Duran--and Pam Skaist-Levy, it started as a T-shirt line and soon became known for low-cut, hip-hugging sweatpants with the words “Juicy” emblazoned across the butt. The product was hip, if no hipper than dozens of other start-up clothing lines that debuted and quickly vanished at around the same time. But Juicy had the marketing savvy of Nash-Taylor and Skaist-Levy.

“They really know how to work it in terms of getting free product into the hands of people,” says Rose Apodaca, West Coast bureau chief for Women’s Wear Daily. “Early on [in 2001], Juicy did a suite at the Chateau Marmont. It lasted all day. It was crazy chaos. Celebrities, media editors and all kinds of It Girls were there. Most people were given one free outfit. Others got more than that, I’m sure. Their track suits retail for about $175. The cashmere ones go for $500. Advertising Age wrote about the event as a case study. It put their name out there in a big way. They also sent a lot of swag to editors and celebrities and got the Juicy name out there on the people who mattered.”

It cost Juicy anywhere from $20,000 to $100,000 to stage swag fests from L.A. to New York, but they proved to be extremely cost-effective. “In the fashion world it is much more impactful to see editorial than to see an advertisement,” Nash-Taylor explains. “If you see an advertisement in Vogue, our customer will riffle past that. If the editor says ‘Editor’s Pick,’ you’re going to pay attention to that.” Juicy’s giveaway events generated articles in People, Women’s Wear Daily, Us Weekly, the New York Post’s Page Six, New York Daily News, Angeleno, OK!, Brntwd, New York magazine, Allure, Elle, Glamour, Harper’s Bazaar, InStyle, Marie Claire, Vogue, W, the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles magazine and the Boston Globe. In 2002 the advertising value equivalency of these articles was estimated to be $41,966,494.

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In 2003 Nash-Taylor and Skaist-Levy sold the company to Liz Claiborne for an initial cash payment of $39 million, which may climb to $98 million after a required earn-out payment. And late last year they launched their first Juicy boutique, at the Caesars Palace Forum Shops in Las Vegas--chartering three planes to fly celebs and press to the opening night party.

“I don’t know if they gave outfits to people,” says Los Angeles Times fashion critic Booth Moore, who covered the opening. “Obviously, I didn’t take the plane.” (Los Angeles Times staffers and freelancers are not allowed to accept gifts of any kind, including travel, so she drove.) “But a lot of people at the opening were dressed in Juicy, and I don’t imagine that they paid for it.”

The prehistory of swag

Before the swag suite and the gift bag, there was the travel junket. Like D.W. Griffith’s perfection of the close-up, the junket was a revolutionary breakthrough in its field. Developed by resorts and travel bureaus after World War II, it has become a surefire way of generating reams of ink.

The junket gives travel bureaus, resorts and hotels the biggest bang for their buck, far more than they could get by taking out ads in major magazines or newspapers. Full-page ads in national magazines run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. In contrast, it might cost a grand to fly a writer to a hotel or resort for a weekend junket, and the results are far more effective. Kim Marshall, a former freelance writer who now runs a PR firm, the Marshall Plan, that organizes “press trips” for luxury resorts such as the Bora Bora Nui and Triple Creek Ranch in Montana, explains that “objective” copy in the form of an article is “seven times more believable. Because an ad is what you say about yourself. A third-party endorsement is far more credible in the mind of the reader.”

Publicists refuse to admit that junkets compromise the integrity of participating journalists. “I’m a professional and I work with professionals, and they can’t be bought,” Marshall says. She claims the correspondents on her junkets adhere to back-breaking schedules to take in all of the sights and activities of the locales she promotes. Nevertheless, she expects at least half of them to get stories into print--”a minimum 50% return rate.” Those who don’t won’t be invited on her next trip.

The spectacular success of travel junkets has led to the “junketization” of a wide spectrum of industries. Movie studios were the first to realize the potential, and they began flying journalists to exotic locations to schmooze with movie stars. In 1969, more than 500 members of the press congregated on Grand Bahama Island for Warner Bros.’ International Film Festival, which was in reality a giant junket to promote the studio’s most prestigious summer films, among them “The Wild Bunch” and “The Rain People.” The same approach was later applied to the music business.

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Today, when auto companies debut their latest models, they invariably fly journalists in for the event. When Acura showed off its 2004 Acura TL in Seattle, dozens attended the junket at the W Hotel, where they were put up for two nights, treated to two dinners and cocktails, attended technical briefings on the car and test drove it. According to Mike Spencer, Acura’s public relations manager, only a handful paid their own way. “Hopefully, we’ll get at least 100 stories out of it,” he says.

Jaguar held a junket in Scottsdale, Ariz., where the freebies included rounds of golf. Rolls-Royce offered reporters a drive up the coast from Santa Barbara to a private winery, where the vino flowed freely. Land Rover has held junkets on a ranch in Colorado and other rural settings where writers could practice skeet shooting, fly-fishing and falconry. According to a PR rep for the automaker--who asked not to be identified for fear that this article would reflect negatively on the industry--this isn’t bribery but merely a way of contextualizing the product: “It’s not just about what the vehicle physically does, it’s also about the culture of the vehicle. The optional activities . . . are everything that you picture someone who ultimately would purchase a Land Rover would do.”

Many auto magazines allow or even encourage their writers to take free junkets because, they claim, they can’t afford to pay the costs themselves. “An airline ticket or hotel room is not, in this parlance, in our space, in any way a gift,” says Matt Stone, executive editor of Motor Trend magazine. “Business travel is a tool necessary for us to do our job.”

A veteran freelancer now employed by a major daily newspaper agrees. “To take the high road and accept no freebies is very, very expensive,” he says. But, he adds, “the argument that this doesn’t affect journalists’ judgment is crap. Of course it does. And I’m an old hand at this. I’ve been to Europe maybe 50 times on product launches. They’ll fly us into Frankfurt or Rome, the south of France. It’ll be spectacular, right? Then they’ll say, ‘OK, drive this car. What do you think?’ ‘Gee, I don’t know. Here I am bathed in the warm light of the Riviera. The car looks pretty good to me.’ It really takes some doing to resist that tendency to be favorable.”

How to talk swag

The gift bag, swag suite and junket paradigms have been adopted by almost every conceivable industry. Cosmetic companies fly beauty editors to Paris to present their new product lines. At the 2004 Republican National Convention, journalists received booklets full of discount tickets for New York retailers and were treated to martinis by Time Warner. Chris Mauro, editor of Surfer magazine, and Tom Bie, editor of Powder, say that their contributors accept free travel and product from manufacturers and promoters in the surf and ski industries, but without any guarantee of giving them ink.

“Outdoor writers are the biggest whores in the business,” says the veteran freelancer. “I’ve seen outdoor writers who’ve had boats delivered to their house from manufacturers. Theoretically they’re testing them, but the boat sits in the guy’s yard--they just keep it, a 25- to 30-foot boat. There are $50,000 bass boats.”

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The freebie culture has engendered a sense of entitlement. Publicists love to do imitations of journalists who have tried to scam them. “Our company represents the Tribeca and SoHo Grand hotels,” Cutrone says. “I get 10 e-mails a day from journalists who are coming to New York from all over the world. I’m talking about everyone from the Daily Telegraph to the Shanghai Times. They call and say, ‘Hi, we’re going to do this big, huge blowout story. We can only pick one hotel in New York City. Can you offer a press rate?’ As a publicist, this is how I would translate that: ‘We’re sending this e-mail to every cool hotel in New York. This is a huge [tourist] market for you. We’re not going to come out and say that we want a free hotel room.’ So what I’m going to say to my client is: ‘Can we offer these people a comped room? I think it could turn out to be a great story for us.’ ”

When fashion writers come to town, they don’t stop at the free hotel room. “You ask them to come to an event,” Cutrone explains, “and they say, ‘Can you send me a car?’ Or, ‘I don’t have anything to wear. I’d really love to wear your designer to the show.’ You can smell a fashion editor who’s looking for a free ride. They’ll come to your showroom and they light up, saying, ‘Ohhhh, loooovvvveee!!! Oh my God, I’ve got to get one of these. I just love it, love it! You knoooow, we’re actually working on this amazing issue, which I think that this would be perfect for. But you know what, I’m going away with my boyfriend for the weekend. We’re going to St. Bart’s. Do you think there’s any way I can get a deal on one of these?’ That’s classic.”

Of course, publicists have no one to blame for this but themselves. They’re the ones who addicted journalists to freebies in the first place. Many fashion publicists offer a “media discount” on their clients’ products, which can range from 20% to 70%, depending on the client and the writer’s clout. (A writer for a national glossy might get a larger discount than a reporter for a regional publication.) And then there’s the “gifting” of designer clothing, shoes, purses, jewelry, sunglasses, watches and so on. Again, the status of the byline and the circulation of the publication calibrate the value of the gift. A junior editor at a regional publication might receive a $500 starter purse, while an editorial superstar could receive a $5,000 status bag.

Product is sometimes dispersed as part of a wider campaign to raise public awareness. Cutrone explains: “We’ll go to the designer and say, ‘Listen, we think that the green leather bag is a very cute must-have item for this season. What I’d like to do is order an extra 35 bags and do a gifting program to the editors.’ Then the costs are rolled into production. Then the editors show up at fashion shows wearing it.” And a trend is born.

No wonder Juicy Couture’s Nash-Taylor proselytizes the virtues of swag. When I interviewed her for this story, I asked if she rewards journalists who write favorable articles with follow-up gifts. “You’d better believe it, David!” she exclaimed. “At the end of the conversation, we always say, ‘Do you have Juicy? Do you want something for your wife?’ We’ll put you on with Kate and say, ‘Kate, send David a great box.’ Some journalists are not allowed to accept anything.” And I was one of them, I informed her. “Oh, you are?” Nash-Taylor groaned. I admitted that my wife and daughter would be angry that I turned her down. She emitted a throaty laugh. “They’re bumming. As a journalist, if you were allowed to do that, you’d understand our product better. So why not? That’s how I look at it. Why not? I’m sorry I can’t send you something for your wife and your daughter. They’re going to be saying, ‘You should have done it, Dad!’ You too, David. We’ve got great men’s stuff.”

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