Gift bags still hit overdrive, even under IRS scrutiny

It seems out of control, and it is, and the IRS is cracking down on it, but please don’t call it swag, asks Cheryl Cecchetto of Sequoia Prods., producer of both the Emmy presenters’ gift bags and post-Emmy Governors Ball.

“These are unique products and experiences, not a wild, overwhelming swag room. This is very classy and specific,” asserts the experienced event planner about the 110 artfully chosen gift bags designed as an extension of the presenting experience and a thank you for participating. “It’s not over the top. It’s extremely contained and toned down.”

Although Cecchetto declines to estimate an exact dollar figure, not only is the value of merchandise escalating (show sponsor Sprint pitched in its Fusic LG mobile phone), so too is the level of hype attached to these goodies. Approximately 100 products, including exotic travel stays, were submitted for consideration. Cecchetto, her team and two TV Acad staffers made the 15 final picks.

“These gift bags have gotten to be such a big thing that ‘Entertainment Tonight,’ ‘Extra’ and ‘Access Hollywood’ all do segments on them,” says Gavin Keilly of GBK Prods., a Los Angeles-based fund-raising and event firm. “The perception is that the product is No. 1 in its category, therefore the payoff for the brand is huge.”

Karen Wood, prexy of Backstage Creations, produces 12 to 15 gifting venues each year in association with such events as the recent Teen Choice Awards and upcoming Toronto Film Fest.

“It’s become part of the culture in a business sense. Gifting to celebrities is a viable form of marketing for companies,” Wood explains. She notes there’s “definitely competition to get into gift bags and celebrity retreats at premiere events that get the media attention.”

But since the IRS has taken a tougher stance on gift bags, some product marketers have found a new spin on getting their stuff PR via celebs by turning swag into charitable donations.

At Backstage Creations’ Teen Choice Awards gift suite, celebs autographed items they wished to donate for an auction that benefited the City of Hope. They were given tax forms as well, to ensure that everything was kosher.

However, if what’s in the bag remains embargoed almost up to the event (such as Emmy and Oscar), why the multiple bids for inclusion?

“There’s terrific value if your product gets into the hands of the identified and targeted audience,” says Jennifer Gross, Evolutionary Media PR’s prexy. Gross prefers working with high-profile kudocasts such as the Grammys or Emmys rather than gift houses, where it’s the celebs who get the exposure rather than the product.

But while the stars might be working free, the bags aren’t. There’s often a charge — up to $15,000 — for a brand to place its product in a high-profile swag bag. (The TV Academy says there is no charge for being in its bags.)

For Gross, high-profile gift bags are “not about the press, but about marketing and branding. It’s a great opportunity for brands to hit TV and movie stars. If the cast of ‘Entourage’ or ‘Will & Grace’ gets your stuff, that’s hot.”

The downside here for brands is that under the trickle-down theory of swag (when swag trickles up the social ladder, it’s “regifting”) it’s more likely that Teri Hatcher’s — or Michael Chiklis’ — cleaning lady will end up wearing the Vitamin A bikini.

No worries if a client missed the official Emmy gift tote. A hefty number of rival marketers are also doling out the goods at invite-only pre-Emmy affairs such as the Silver Spoon Emmy Buffet, Style Lounge by Kari Feinstein and the Showtime Emmy suite at the Cooley Estate.

With an entire industry devoted to giving stuff away, it was inevitable there would be a Web site where there’s up-to-the-minute info on what was in — and what’s going into — these bags.

“The media attention comes from two sides,” says Jenna Seiden, co-founder of Swagtime.com. “It’s a celebrity story about their lifestyle, what stuff they’re getting. And there are definitely more celebrity outlets covering these things. The other side is the brands themselves. There’s usually something about the product, like the newest cell phone, that’s innovative or trendy.”

Soon, the most coveted gift bags will include the requisite bling plus a gift certificate for accounting services.

(Bill Higgins contributed to this report.)

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