Friday, December 08, 2006

Free Schwag

According to "Schwag" has two definitions.

1. Any free or give away promo items. Often time given at events or to employees/workers.

2. Poor quality brown marijuana. The cheapest variety available, the least potent.

I was not aware of the second definition of this word but it makes sense. The stuff that you get for free at a conference is often the cheapest crap out there. Crappy pens, and ugly cheap water bottles with a company logo plasted on them. My coworker once got the world's worst WOK (who knew they made free schwag woks?). But I have to admit, I still love the free stuff. Mostly it's because it's free, but every now and then you get a gem. Mugs, Umbrellas, Candy, Tshirts, Frisbees, Squeeze toys, hackey sacks - my desk is a depository of random crap, and I'm always on the look out for more. It's the reason I love to go to MacWorld and other events. Not to actually look at the new and latest programs/hardware. Nope. It's to get the free superball that they are giving out promoting their latest program/hardware.

But I realize that not all free stuff is the same.

Take for instance a mug my friend had. His mother was psychiatrist, and hence had a ton of psychoactive drug paraphanelia around the house. His favorite mug was given to his mom by a drug rep. The drug it was promoting was for ZOLOFT - an antidepressant, similar to Prozac.

The mug said "Have a ZOLOFT morning."

I so want that mug. I still do. It has to be one of the best promotional items I've heard about, and I don't know why they still don't use the phrase "Have a ZOLOFT morning." Sheer marketing brilliance.

Being in advertising, I get to see a lot of freebie promo crap. Hell, I've worked on a lot of projects and campaigns that have giveaways (probably a good 60% of my campaigns now that I think about it) - some successful and some not so successful (at my current job and my previous jobs). The dot-com era from 8 years ago was full of promotional schwag - from CD cases and polar tech pullovers embroidered with dot coms that no longer exist, to socks that say "Our product doesn't stink" and a myriad of tshirts that I can't even wear to the gym because I'm embarrassed that I still own them (I really need to clean out my closet). Stick a logo on something and it's free schwag. I've pretty much seen it all.

At my current job, I've worked on schwag that has ranged from squeezie foam stress grips in the shape of penises (our most popular item - it promoted Syphilis Testing) to a bling-tastic Mardi Gras style necklace that said Homoboy to the more mundane pens, iPod cases, magnets and t-shirts. My most recent schwag item that I have worked on is a "magic 8 ball" where the answers all tell you to go and get an STD test. Yes, this is my job boys and girls.

That said though, my favorite schwag is often from pharmaceutical companies. Perhaps it the juxtaposition of what the drugs are suppose to achieve, coupled with the blatantly mundane items that the logos are placed on that I love so much.

In college my roommate had a ton of freebie pens from a pharmaceutical company that his father worked at. And when I say a ton, I mean he literally had brown paper shopping bags and boxes of pens floating around the house. We were never want for something to write with in our apartment, and I took to carrying them around by the handful and handing them out to my friends in class, those who forgot to bring a pen (what college student is without pens? apparently all my friends...).

The best thing about the pens though, wasn't that writing quality, or the comfort, or the design. The pens weren't all that great, a generic ballpoint, white with the logo of some drug on it.

Nope. The pens were the perfect conversational starter because the drug was pulled from the market. Apparently it was the cause of several deaths.

We were all writing with death pens. This explained why my roommate had so many floating around. The drug had hit the market, the company did a big push for it (it was a cold medicine drug actually that was suppose to be really great, very few side effects - well except for the death thing) and then all of sudden people were dropping dead. What do they do with all these pens? Give them to their employees and their employee's sons I guess. After a semester I started to see the pens popping up all over campus - in the hands of people I didn't know, and of friends who I know I never gave a pen to. I believe through the magical distribution of my roommates and I, we had distributed the death pens all over campus.

The pharmaceutical schwag is ubiquitous though. Look around you next time you take the subway or are out and about people watching. You'll probably come across at least one item that has a drug logo on it. Whether it's a mug, a shirt, or a pen, the drug companies have money and they give out tons of free stuff.

Take for instance the pharmaceutical schwag I saw today on the subway. A middle aged Asian woman was riding the train next to me. She was the type that you see wearing comfortable shoes, and usually carrying the ubiquitous pink grocery bag full of chinese groceries, dressed in slightly outdated hand me down clothes (acid washed jeans? tapered faded black jeans? khaki pants with burgandy orthopedics? you get the idea).

Instead of the pink grocery bag though, she had a stiff dark gray cloth bag. It looked like a sturdy disposable bag - something meant to be used once, but would probably be reused for about a month before it disintegrated. Tastefully stamped on the front of the bag was the logo "Viagra (sildenafil citrate) tablets".

She looked completely nonchalant about carrying the bag. Had I had a camera on me, and if there was a way for me to actually take a photo of her without her noticing, I would have. This is why I love pharmaceutical schwag. The juxtaposition of the drug in a mundane setting. Genius.

Of course, ever now and then freebies bite me in the ass.

My brother is a forensic psychiatrist (and before you ask me what that is, and how he analysises dead people, forensics really just means anything to do with the law). If you watch Law and Order: SVU, the character that B.D. Wong plays (Dr. George Huang) is a forensic psychiatrist. And apparently his character is very much like my brother (I still haven't seen the show).

Regardless, due to the psychiatry part of his job, my brother gets a lot of freebie schwag from pharmeuceticals. He was doing his residency in Missouri years ago, but came out to San Francisco for the American Psychiatric Association conference awhile ago (this is before he moved to Sacramento). He scored some great schwag at the conference (everything from pens and clipboards, to a cheap film camera and a pair of binoculars). But the item that he gave me that I loved the most was a cheap umbrella.

The umbrellas was kind of ugly. Institution green and pee yellow, it was the cheapest sort of umbrella, liable to turn inside out at the merest hint of a wind, the type where the metal stem immediately would bend and break. But I loved using it, because emblazoned on the umbrella was the drug RISPERDAL.

What's Risperdal? Glad you asked. It's an anti-psychotic drug given to people with severe schizophrenia. In other words, it makes people stop hearing the voices in the head.

I LOVE that. I love that I had an umbrella advertising a drug that would stop the voices in people's head. I love that most people never knew what the drug did (obviously it's not a frequently subscribed drug) and that they would often ask me what the drug did. And I could answer "It stops me from hearing the voices in my head."

Then one day I was running late to work. I was working at a bookstore at the time and it was raining that sideways misty San Francisco rain - the type that an umbrella is pretty much useless for, but you use one anyway. I was using my Risperdal umbrella when I ran into the bookstore, and my coworker was there. He started to tell me that I was late, and then he looked at my umbrella and he instead, in a puzzled voice, asked me "Why do you have that umbrella?"

I was delighted that he asked me. "My brother gave it to me, he's a forensic psychiatrist. Do you know this drug?"

He replied back "Yeah. I was on it for awhile. It never really worked though. It only sort of muffled the voices." and then proceeded to cash out of his drawer and leave.

I never used the umbrella again. I believe AJ still has it in the back of his car as an emergency umbrella though.

In the end, as much as I love the free stuff, I've realized that I don't really have room in our ever growing small apartment to store the stuff - especially if it is stuff that I won't use. So we recycle it. Next time you invite us over to a gift exchange/white elephant/yankee swap party, just be warned. You might be getting a pile pens with various printing company's logo on them, or a tshirt advertising a new plastic based paper. But if anyone comes across that "have a Zoloft Morning" mug let me know. That's one mug I'd never give up. No matter how many coworkers I know that take Zoloft.