The Dos and Don'ts of Gift Bags

The world according to swag; what works and what doesn't in the silliest marketing medium.

May 3, 2013, 8:41 AM EDT

Gift bags used to be enormous, outrageous things. In the golden age of swag, which I’d place around the turn of the 21st century, planners were meticulous, and some, like Next Model Management’s Faith Kates Kogan—the main organizer behind the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund’s Super Saturday shopping event in Bridgehampton, New York—made it their goal that the value of an event’s gift bag should exceed the cost of the ticket.

In those days, Faith would accept all deliveries in her Hamptons garage and meticulously stuff thousands and thousands of items. It seemed no two bags were the same. Not every vendor could afford to send the full amount; Faith would just ask companies to send what they could. Somehow she and her team separated the wheat from the chaff, and everyone got an amazing bag groaning with beauty products, beachwear, jewelry, fashion items, candles, food—a whole summer’s worth of stuff.

Still, that was kid’s stuff compared to the bags for the Elton John AIDS Foundation/In Style (a former client) Oscar gala. At the apogee, I’m guessing in 2003, the bags were worth upwards of $5,000 and contained buckets of La Mer skin cream, pearl earrings, and pashminas.

One year around the same time, Allure magazine, another former client, arranged gift bags for its annual Best in Beauty Awards. The bags were so gigantic that the magazine hired sexy male models to carry them to your car, which was either fabulous or humiliating, depending on how you looked at it.

Then the I.R.S. got wind of all this nonsense and demanded that hosts begin notifying guests of the retail value of the gift bags and sending the names of recipients to the tax men to make sure everyone was declaring their largesse, and that, as they say, was that.

But gift bags are still around, from the sublime to the ridiculous, so I thought I'd weigh in on the dos and don'ts, what works and what doesn't work, based on my epic experience as a party giver and goer.

Do: Include a small bottle of water
This is the best gift bag item bar none; hard-swilling partiers like myself gulp the contents on the way home in the taxi.

Don't: Add alcohol
In the go-go '80s, champagne singles became the de rigueur party-bag item, which was okay. But then the liquor people jumped on board, and those little airplane bottles of booze started showing up. All of a sudden the bottles were being stolen out of the bags by kids and restaurant workers, and the liquor control board and party planners all kind of realized at the same time that giving out free booze in bags was illegal. Oops.

Do: Offer fragrance samples
Since everyone knows that the actual liquid costs like 15 cents to make, giving away a tiny bottle doesn't cost manufacturers very much, and it's a great way to get your scent sampled by a high-end audience. But it must be a real “mini,” meaning a miniature of the actual fragrance bottle—not one of those vial-on-card thingyamajiggies, which is too low-rent for words.

Don’t: Give out coupons offering a percentage off
Nobody wants them, or uses them, and the supplier just comes off schlubby.

Do: Put in dollar value/free service coupons
I can't throw these away, can you? I'm always getting free rides at SoulCycle or a free manicure, even though I absolutely never do either of these things. I give them to someone I know who might want them, so in effect the message gets passed along to two, sometimes three, consumers. Note, the coupons printed on a quality stock with a tasteful design is key in this regard.

Don’t: Go for chocolates
In the same way, because they are cute and have value, I never throw these away. But I don’t eat them, either. I put them on a shelf in the fridge or something and get more and more annoyed as time goes by. What the hell am I supposed to do with this Lindt chocolate Teddy bear in gold foil? Eventually I eat it just to get it out of the house, and I resent the whole process.

Do: Add skin-care items
While there are, of course, some snooty women who only use Erno Laszlo or some such, I know lots of fancy ladies who will smear any kind of skin goo on their face as long as it is free. But beware the smelly ones—the products, not the ladies.

Don’t: Do color cosmetics
At first it seems like a great idea—you get this shiny looking item. But invariably, it's some color or product category you don't really use.

Do: Try hair-care products
I never throw out shampoo, no matter what. The conditioner, I usually try to regift or toss. But the real winner is gels; I am always convinced that I am just one hair gel away from a totally new look, so I try the item the next morning, often to disastrous results.

Don’t: Gift anything with more than 50 words
Catalogs, no matter how luxuriously printed and presented, are just dead weight.

Do: Hand out your offer in a cute little envelope
Just taking that extra step makes such a difference, I can’t figure out why more people don’t do it.

Don’t: Attempt anything about cars
Cars and gift bags do not exist in the same universe.

Do: Provide mints
I don’t care if they come from a wood flooring company. A little container of mints (and there are many clever iterations of this idea) are always appreciated, by both the recipient and those around he or she. Note: When offered a mint, assume the worst and say, “Why yes, thank you.”

Don’t: Cram in the key chains
Although a cute one every now and then squeaks by.

Do: Get creative with pens
This category is all over the map. Some pens I have received are so clever and chic that I carry them around for years on end. My dentist gave me a pen with a little flashlight, I guess to look at my teeth in the dark. I thought it was so nifty, I carried it around for a year until I realized I never really need a pen with a flashlight. (Toys kind work in the same way, some are really inventive, but what am I going to do with a logoed yo-yo?)

Don’t: Opt for corkscrews
Everyone already has 100.

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