No Oscar? How About a Gift Bag?

ByCatherine Valenti

March 24, 2003 -- Perhaps just as exciting as winning an Oscar is being one of the lucky people who get a gift bag.

This year, presenters and performers at the Academy Awards received some $20,000 in merchandise in a gift "bag" that is sometimes so large that celebrities ask for it to be shipped to their homes, say industry insiders.

Although the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which chooses which products will get into the bag, would not officially comment on what was included, many companies are often more than happy to tell the world that their products are among the items that end up in celebrities' clutches.

This year's goodies included a $1,500 private dinner party for the recipient and friends at any Morton's steakhouse worldwide, a pair of Beamer Video Phones valued at $499 together, and a four-night stay worth $1,500 at Rosewood's Badrutt's Palace Hotel, a luxury hotel in St. Moritz, Switzerland.

But it's not just the official Oscar bag that celebrities had to look forward to. Other marketing companies organized "unofficial" Oscar bags worth as much as $40,000, while companies like Estee Lauder provided free spa days to help the nominated actors and actresses get ready for the big night.

Cost-Effective Word of Mouth

In this slumping economy, well-paid celebrities are probably the last people who need baskets full of freebies like mink slippers and skin-care products. But marketers say the gift bag has become one of the most coveted — and relatively inexpensive — ways to get exposure for a product.

"It's just a direct opportunity than traditional advertising to reach the talent, and then reach the consumer, through the PR generated around the gift bags," says Samantha Milo Haft, owner of On 3 Productions, a New York City-based event-planning firm that also does gift bags for events. "One photo of a celebrity wearing your product can ignite sales."

Indeed, the celebrity gift bag has become one of the hottest and most competitive ways for companies to get their products into the hands of a celebrity in the hope that he or she will wear your product in public, show up at your hotel, spa or restaurant or mention to a reporter their favorite brand of eye cream — and get priceless exposure.

"They want to get into the hands of celebrities and they want to get media exposure," says Jane Ubell-Myer, co-founder of Buzz Bags, a New York-based gift bag firm. "It's a very inexpensive way to get into the hands of celebrities."

Celebrity Endorsements

Distinctive Assets, a Los Angeles-based firm that specializes in product placement and gift bags, decided to do its own $40,000 "unofficial" Oscar gift bag for nominees who didn't take home a statue at the end of the night, in part because many of the company's clients who weren't in the official Oscar bag wanted to get some celebrity exposure. Among the items included in the bag were a $4,400 gift certificate for Lasik eye surgery and a $200 pair of mink slippers by footwear designer and orthopedic surgeon Dr. Taryn Rose.

Distinctive Assets co-founder Lash Fary says he thinks the recession has only boosted companies' craze for stuffing celebrity gift bags.

"As they're cutting back on their marketing and advertising budgets, they're looking at creative ways to get publicity," says Fary.

Fary says the ultimate coup is when a celebrity is photographed wearing one of your products or if it inspires them in other ways. He says one gift bag that included a George Foreman grill got into the hands of sitcom King of Queens star Kevin James, who liked the grill so much he had it written into a few episodes of the show.

"You never really know where things turn up, that's kind of icing on the cake," Fary says.

Celebrities Want Them, Too

Known for its comfortable shoes and sandals, Birkenstock provided a $300 gift certificate for the official Oscar gift bag for the second year in a row. The company, which has always focused on grass-roots efforts to get publicity rather than splashy ad campaigns, says being included is a great way of getting influential people to wear its shoes.

"It's more of just building the brand than pushing the product," says Birkenstock spokeswoman Jenny Mirmelstein, who says the company counts actresses like Oscar winners Marcia Gay Harden and Jodie Foster as fans.

But it's not just companies and marketers who lick their lips in anticipation of a gift bag. For all their wealth, celebrities also look forward to their free booty.

Queen Latifah, who was nominated for best supporting actress for her role in Chicago, has been quoted saying what she really wanted from the evening was a good bag.

"I'm looking forward to that basket. I can't wait to see what's in it," she was quoted as saying on celebrity news Web site "I don't care how much money you have, free stuff is always a good thing."

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