Stuff We All Get

And can't seem to shake

I returned the other day from a walk to find a small bag hanging from my doorknob. Shiny and black, with the name of my apartment’s management company screaming in bright white on its sides, it contained a little holiday card touting the generosity of said company, “one more perk” of living in my building. I laid the crinkly plastic in a corner to off-gas until I figured out what to do with it.

Too small to use for groceries, or even as a lunch bag, this strapped pouch couldn’t even serve as a purse. I gave up trying to imagine a situation in which such a little sack could come in handy, or what the designer of this toy tote was thinking. As I suspect is true for most of my management company’s decisions, this particular model was probably selected because it was the cheapest thing on offer.

Sigh. There it was, stinking up maybe half a square foot of my living space: the embodiment of swag. How far back in time would we have to go, I wondered, to find the point at which companies began advertising themselves by handing out free products no one ever imagined wanting until it was pushed into their hands? And when did conference-goers or attendees at job fairs or student orientations start to expect, maybe even demand, the gift of cheap crap emblazoned with logos as part of their experience?(1)

Cheers to Merriam-Webster for helping me answer at least half of my queries; apparently, our conference fees started buying us these baubles in the 1960s. Since then, though, every business around seems to think someone will be thrilled to get their hands on an object just because it’s free. Don’t like handing over your whole paycheck for a dental cleaning? Have this keychain; you’ll feel better about everything! No one wants to come to the office holiday party? Wait until they send everyone home at the end, too buzzed on sanity-saving bad alcohol to turn down a whole bagful of sweatshop-made t-shirts, blankets, caps, scarves, and notepads adorned with the company name in company colors! The recipients will deal later on with the guilt trips thrown at them for not donning those synthetic fibers on casual Fridays.

Lewis and Clark Exposition. Public domain image courtesy University of Washington and Wikimedia Commons.

I get the feeling that somewhere along the line, swag transformed itself into an attempt to have us unsee what we really should be getting in exchange for the money we’ve handed over or the time we’ve put in at the office. Instead of me doing your advertising for you by carrying around a god-awful tote bag, how about you lower those conference fees, or my rent, or even (as in the case of my building) just take the time you spent placing and distributing that order to enforce your posted noise rules? Instead of a t-shirt that reminds me who calls the shots in my life from nine to five on weekdays, why not give me better healthcare? Nah; let’s try instead to get a smile out of customers or employees when they see their free pair of socks, and hope that quick moment of surprise can make everyone forget crappy working or living conditions; it’s a lot cheaper than fixing the real problems.

Well, fine. But even if I don’t try to argue this point with my leasing manager, what am I supposed to do, by the way, with this bag that may never shed its chemical odor? By handing over this unsolicited souvenir, the company has only transferred to yours truly responsibility for how best to dispose of nonbiodegradable waste. Sure, I can just toss it into my thrift store box—which in turn means I’m passing the buck on to someone else. And by getting rid of one little pouch, I definitely won’t change humans’ apparent addiction to free stuff, regardless of the real costs involved.

The only solution I can think of right now? I’ll head down to the manager’s office tonight, and hang the bag on her doorknob. Maybe she’ll be thrilled tomorrow morning to get a free, sort of easy-to-carry cozy for her phone—just one more exciting perk of working in such a caring place!

(1) I began to wonder whether all this expectation of free stuff, especially at conferences with ridiculously high registration fees, convinces attendees they’re entitled to still more. The last time I used an old conference bag, a publicist friend of mine took one look at where it came from, snickered, and said, oh yeah, that’s the event where the highest percentage of our inventory is stolen every year.

At some point, I also want to consider the way in which swag often puffs up a comical sense of self-importance among conference-goers, walking around town with totes and name badges prominently displayed, as if the fate of the world were being sealed down in the Hilton’s meeting rooms.