How to Give

5 minute read
Joel Stein

IN MY NAIVE YOUTH, I went to parties for the free alcohol, the food, the networking and the vague hope of finding a woman willing to give it up. I used to—and this is embarrassing to admit—turn down the gift bag. That’s right: I’d walk out the door, waving my hand in a superior, negative gesture, somehow hoping that it would make me look cool, that the publicists would think I really cared about them and their event, which was important because they were women with things to give up. Besides, I figured the gift bags were full of Tootsie Rolls, fake tattoos and those evil wicker tubes that would cost me weeks of work by getting my index fingers stuck together.

Now I realize that my lack of entitlement broadcast my insignificance. The way to establish your cachet is not to reject free stuff but to demand tremendous amounts of it. And there is no limit to how much can be had because as much as the rich are willing to take, corporations are willing to give even more.

The gift bag, always a staple of weddings and kids’ parties, got a shot of steroids in 2001 when the Oscars started handing out bags of really pricey stuff to presenters. When the red carpet became a well-covered event unto itself, clothing and jewelry designers figured out that they got more attention by lending items to nominees than they did by paying for a prohibitively expensive Oscars commercial. Inadvertently, In Style magazine had created a black market for celebrities.

Seeing how clothes were getting all that attention, scented candles demanded a way in. Back in 2000, Los Angeles’ Distinctive Assets (DA), the largest awards-show gifting firm, had trouble persuading companies not only to donate free stuff to celebrities but also to pay DA for the privilege. For this year’s MTV Video Music Awards show bag, MTV set the minimum at $250 a gift. Distinctive Assets’ 2005 Grammy bag was worth $30,000 and included free LASIK surgery, a membership at Sports Club/LA and a weekend at the Valhalla Shooting Club. The company even custom-builds some bags: an extra gift for a huge star, no alcohol for a musician in A.A., a little something for Steadman.

The gift bag has trickled down to every local charity function, and Distinctive Assets is constantly asked to do bar mitzvahs, weddings and dinner parties, which they sometimes will as a favor to a big client or celebrity. Madison & Mulholland, a gift-bag company in New York City, even produces bags several times a year for United Airlines’ first-class passengers and the Hampton Jitney, which is a commuter bus between Manhattan and Long Island, N.Y. “People who go out to the Hamptons are trendsetters,†says Jane Ubell-Meyer, who founded Madison & Mulholland four years ago. We will see, in our lifetime, a gift bag at the higher-profile Porta Potties.

The business is becoming so institutionalized that, for the second year, Ubell-Meyer is teaching a class called “The Art of the Goodie Bag†at Manhattan’s Fashion Institute of Technology. Even hostesses of small private parties call her. “There’s all this pressure to have a gift bag at every party—nonprofits, profits, everything,†she says.

Gift bags are a world in which few, really, can imagine the pressure. But they are already a relic, having evolved into the gift lounge. At Sundance this year, the gift lounge—and Keanu Reeves’ shocking decision not to take anything from—it got more press than any of the festival’s movies. Distinctive Assets makes the lounges cool places to hang out, with amenities such as a bar, video games, cigars, a pool table and a masseuse. “ We’re somewhere for the talent to go while they’re waiting to go onstage,†says DA’s president, Lash Fary. The gift rooms get so much press that earlier this year the People’s Choice Awards asked Distinctive Assets to set one up for them just to increase the show’s visibility. It’s certainly easier than coming up with a better idea for your awards show.

Hilary De Vries, whose last book was about publicists, has a new novel called The Gift Bag Chronicles. “It’s kind of sad. It’s greed on display,†says De Vries. And the virus, she says, has spread beyond celebrities. “There are tons of reporters who won’t go to events if the bag isn’t up to snuff. If they show up, the publicist can say this media outlet was here. And they can hand that list to the corporate client.†I have finally found a class I can teach at journalism school.



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