Beware of Public Relations “Swag”

When it was released in 2005, the Dreamworks film “Just Like Heaven” got mixed reviews but did pretty well at the box office, debuting at No. 1 with a first week haul of more than $16.4 million. Dreamworks’ budget for the movie, however, was called into question; the public relations strategy behind the movie was the reason why.

Pat Clark, editor of the Modesto Bee, a newspaper from Modesto, Ca., wrote a column in which he skewered Dreamworks for sending him mini cheesecakes, candles, and a coupon for a free digital music download, all of it promoting “Just Like Heaven.” Clark estimated that that Dreamworks spent $57.38 on the “swag” it sent to him to promote “Just Like Heaven.” Extrapolated to the 1,500 daily newspapers Dreamworks could have potentially courted, Clark estimated the public relations budget could have possibly come to $83,000 worth of promotional swag.

“It’s a total waste,” Clark wrote. “No one writes or chooses favorable stories or reviews based on swag. Plus, it’s unethical to keep it. So we hand over anything worth anything to our bosses, and when the holidays roll around, it’s auctioned off in a building-wide Book of Dreams benefit sale. At least that way, a little money goes for something worthwhile.”

Clark suggested that in lieu of swag, studio public relations departments should “drop us a postcard saying that the money typically spent on publication promotions was sent to feed starving children in Africa, or to help rebuild the Gulf Coast, or to some society researching a cure for some disease.”

Clark is not alone in his distaste for swag. Like the Modesto Bee, newsroom rules around the country often dictate that any promotional gifts should be given back to the newsroom to be auctioned off for charity at the end of the year. As such, the software, CDs, books, shirts, backpacks, hats and general junk that piles up ends up raising money for someone in need.

At its heart, swag is nothing more than a thinly-veiled, cheap bribe. As Clark notes, no serious journalist changes a review or an opinion because of a free cheesecake or some scented candles. In fact, an abundance of swag may just have the opposite effect, planting an idea in a journalist’s head that the product, company, etc. is so bad that a public relations department has resorted to promotional junk to hide the stink.

A swag backlash has quietly building for the past few years. Originally, it was because of newsroom rules that prohibited journalists from keeping said swag. Now it’s more about sensible business and  public relations practices, something at the heart of Clark’s argument. Individual journalists understand that they are not the only ones on a swag list; it’s easy to come up with numbers like the $83,000-plus Dreamworks probably spent on “Just Like Heaven.” Considering the economic injustices of the world, that number looks ugly.

There are swag exceptions, of course. Books, CDs, software, DVDs, and gadgets sent for review are not really swag. Sending these items out to the media is necessary, but did the public relations department need to include the t-shirt promoting the product? When the journalist can’t keep it anyway, why bother?

Swag is, of course, a big part of the trade show business. Many of us have attended trade shows only to return overloaded with bags full of swag. A few years ago, I went to a trade show for toy manufacturers and marketers and hauled away enough swag to make any kid happy. I deposited the stuff with an editor for the end-of-year auction and never wrote about a single company featured at the show.

I won’t suggest that swag is unimportant. Swag is a simple, sometimes cost-effective way of getting your brand in front of business partners. However, I don’t see swag as an effective public relations tool tool when it comes to getting your brand in front of the media. As Pat Clark demonstrated, swagging the media can have the opposite of the intended effect. That’s not money well spent. It’s just wasted swag.

This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (, a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (, the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *