Oscar Swag Bags: The Original Influencer Marketing?

Along with designer dresses on the red carpet, Oscar swag bags have become almost as much a part of the Academy Awards tradition as the coveted statue itself. The word "swag" originally described the loot a burglar makes off with when they rob your house. If you’re envisioning a little tote bag filled with cosmetic samples, guess again, because last year’s gift bag hit the record books at a valuation of $232,000.  This year's assortment has been a bit more restrained.

Swag Bag History

Oscar swag bags first appeared during the 1970s, when companies realized that they could garner free publicity by gifting celebrities with luxury samples at Hollywood’s biggest event. Since then, these simple goodie bags have epitomized outrageous consumerism, with toiletries priced in the thousands, luxury foods fit for royalty and incredible all-expense-paid vacation trips. Typically, 21 of these bags are gifted to high-profile figures like the program host, the best and best supporting actors and actresses, and the best director nominees.

Swag Bags: The Business Side

The era of the swag bag almost ended in 2007, when the IRS declared the items taxable. The Academy threatened to end the practice — mostly because of concerns that companies were using swag bags to ambush the Oscar brand.1024x1024 Oscar Swag Bag Trip to Legal.jpg

Since 2003, the bags have been put together by Hollywood elite shopping service Distinctive Assets. With each succeeding year, the gift items have become more extravagant and often outrageous, but always pricey. In recent years, the shopping service has added items such as O-Shots, a controversial “vagina rejuvenation” procedure for enhancing physical intimacy as well as luxury-priced sex toys. Worried about its reputation, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has tried to distance itself from these “unofficial” gifts.

In 2016, the Academy sued Distinctive Assets over trademark infringement, with concerns that the company was misleading the public about its brand being allied to that of the Oscars. The suit was amicably settled, however, with Distinctive Assets agreeing not to use the Academy Awards logos in its advertising.

How Brands Benefit From Swag Bags

Companies are willing to pay from $5,000 to $20,000 to get their products in an Oscar swag bag. For $5,000, you’ll not only get your product in the bag, but also a photo of a celebrity holding the product. For $15,000, you can go backstage and have photos taken of yourself with celebrities holding your product.  Today's top social media influencers scoff at any hint of endorsement for fees that low, so look for a meteoric increase in those rates.

In this age of celebrity-driven consumerism, when an item worn by a Kardashian can become a best-seller in minutes thanks to digital marketing, this type of publicity is now a table stakes marketing channel. Charities can benefit too.  Last year’s bag included a donation of $10,000 worth of free meals to the celebrity’s favorite animal shelter.

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