Are Gifts Wasted on the Media?

When it comes to promotional tchotchkes, every season is a season of giving. The PR industry spends $1 billion annually on "wearable" giveaways alone, typically T-shirts, hats and jackets, according to Angela West, a spokesperson for the Promotional Products Association in Irving, Texas. But the freebie action definitely heats up during the holidays. The question is whether gift giving is a worthwhile expense item in the PR budget. Rise Birnbaum, CEO of Z Communications in Arlington, Va., is among the believers. This year, her firm purchased 500 pairs of rubber flip-flops to send to clients, vendors and select media outlets like the Wall Street Journal. "We wanted to send something that would remind people of the beach and make them smile," she says. (As for the connection between the beach and PR, we're confused.) "It's not as if I'm sending a crystal paperweight from Neiman Marcus," she adds. "This is something they can accept without feeling bribed or compromised." Therein lies the nugget. How much can you spend before you offend? While the days of Tiffany finery have passed, much of the fodder in today's gift mill is no less expensive - it's simply more strategic. Stick it under the "branding" line item in the budget and the sky's the limit. Take, for example,, a young tech firm that changed its identity this year, ditching the clunky name "Total Entertainment Network" in favor of a more dotcom-friendly moniker. To shore up its name recognition, the company mailed bonafide pogo sticks to 200 of its closest journalist and analyst friends. Pogo also donated 100 sticks to the San Francisco chapter of Toys for Tots. Total price tag: about five grand. "It's hard to compare this with other promotions that have a specific objective of getting media coverage," says Garth Chouteau, pogo's director of corporate communications. "This was more of a Christmas gift slash awareness-building effort." Which raises the next question: Are freebies really useful in building brand awareness? In the media relations arena, most journalists say no - particularly when gifts arrive en masse during the holidays. "My favorite gift ever was a big toy truck with a horn," says one former AP reporter. "But I don't remember the company, so maybe it wasn't that great." Jenny Wohlfarth, managing editor of HOW Magazine, a trade book for graphic designers, remembers Canon as the sender of the weirdest gift she ever received. But its message was lost. "We received a box of 'all things orange,' including an orange ball, a tube of orange puffy paint, an orange lollipop and an orange inflatable picture frame," she says. "We still can't figure out the significance of the orange connection." Ok, then. Try sending your company's actual product as a gift. Surely that'll mean a better chance of getting your brand noticed. Nope. That, too, can backfire. James Meek, Washington correspondent for APB News, who previously edited Internet Week, notes that "all of us had the option of getting a free America Online account, but I never did because, (A) I hate AOL and (B) I felt it was inappropriate since I covered the company [in my publication]." Into the Abyss Over the past year, Charlie Bragale, managing editor for NBC's Channel 4 in Washington, DC, has logged freebies ranging from software to Nicole Miller scarves to Absolut booze. Last year, he received a Palm Pilot - which he promptly returned, in accordance with company policy. Most publishers have strict gift policies (at PR NEWS, the cap is $50, but that's not a hint), and journalists get peeved when they're required to pay postage to return gifts they can't keep. HOW Magazine takes a slightly different approach. "Gifts of any real value are the property of the personnel department, and they serve as prizes in the annual company picnic," Wohlfarth says. So while the corporate accounting team may enjoy the cookies you sent, they may not be the target audience you were hoping for. Maybe it's just not worth it to send holiday cheer to journalists. In a recent Vancouver Sun article, high tech journalist Janelle Brown (a senior writer for Salon Technology) launched into a tirade about the gifts she'd received that would have made the Grinch proud. "Other swag - such as the colorfully stitched juggling balls and the Casio G-Shock watch.was quickly separated from the PR material it came with," she wrote. "Who can tell, a month on, where those leather motorcycle gloves.came from? Doesn't matter, I suppose, since I wasn't going to write about [them]." Which brings us back to Z Communications and the flip-flops (which, by the way, cost about $5,000 for 500 pairs). We think they may have hit on something big. The agency's URL,, is die-cut in the bottom soles - which means that whoever wears the sporty thongs on the beach will leave a trail of little "Z" brand messages in the sand. Now there's an image that will follow you wherever you go. Did we mention that Z's CEO is a former ABC network correspondent? (West, 972/258-3041; Birnbaum, 703/358-0012; Chouteau, 415/778-3774; Meek, 703/525-6335; Wohlfarth, 513/531-2222)

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