At CES there's a fantasy that the makers of the 4K TVs, waterproof camcorders, or even just phone cases glittering on display are going to give it away for free. You can see it in the eyes of the conference-goers as they linger in front of displays, wait to touch something wonderful and new.
Occasionally there's a big score. The clamoring mass above is the crowd that gathered on the show floor when one or two GoPro cameras — the sort used by snowboarders wing-suiters — were tossed out with a bunch of hats and T-shirts. Usually however, the goods are less impressive. A line suddenly forms as people get a non-glare coating applied to their screen, or scramble for a plastic bag to hold their accumulated collateral.
This week, Chinese tech giant Huawei (pronounced kwah-way) had a gleaming, white megabooth filled with phablets and cameras. A single bowl of earbud cords sat on a desk, policed by silent staff.
Along the hall was possibly the least impressive give away, ever, courtesy of software minimalists Ubuntu: a screen cleaning cloth, total: one inch square. It's pathetic, yet people still swerve out of their way for a 20-cent tchotchke. Whether it's for a tiny flicker of gratification, or for a grade school kid they know.
Some people go hard on swag. Bob Buskirk, who blogs about hardware and calls his personal blog Adventures of a Dot Com Guy! used to tally up everything, from press-credentialed backpacks down to the humblest pen. At the end of CES and he'd publish a photo of the haul. In 2009 he was already complaining about declining standards. "Looking back at what all I got last year I probably got half as much if not less this year. The economic climate probably has a lot to do with what people were giving out this year." Buskirk is here this year, as usual, but said the harder he works the less he grabs.
Steve Seguin, who blogs for Tom's Hardware, went so far as to wipe every flash drive he received and run a diagnostic on it. He tabulated the read-write speeds of six of the best.
As well as mountains of pens, there was 5 Hour Energy and the occasional e-cigarette. There was a brief stir at CES as Trojan reprised its vibrator giveaway that so bothered the Mayor of New York. Trojan's reps made short work of shifting 9,000 TriPhorias ($39.99) in two quick sessions. The mostly male line was long and brisk. "No one's being bashful," said Nyla Saleh of Edelman, who helped hand out the stumpy sex toys. "The commonest comment we're getting is 'My wife will be so excited when I get home.'"
Christian gaming site GameChurch has it right. Their press material boasts:
As one walks up to the GameChurch booth, they are first met with a large 8 foot tall picture of Jesus with a headset on and a game controller in his hand and t-shirts with the phrase 'Jesus loves gamers' on them. The GameChurch booth is filled with free swag that you find at any trade show such as stickers, t-shirts, buttons and lanyards. To set them apart, GameChurch added their own gamer Bible to the swag list.
According to GameChurch founder Mike Bridges, “The Bible is the Gospel of John with commentaries from gaming culture in it.” To date GameChurch has given out more than 35,000 of these Bibles.
New York publicist Lois Whitman has been to every CES. Every single one. She went to the first one as an 18 year old journalist in the Mad Men era, and still shows up in the Age of Snooki. "You get premium crap that nobody wants," she says. "Now a lot of authors are giving out their books in the press package. That's ridiculous. About ten years ago it was a bit better, I suppose. But I don't remember anyone ever giving out anything that would change someone's mind." She once tried giving out code numbers so people could access information electronically but nobody cared.
"I encourage clients not to do swag. Pens work, but then again people come by and grab ten at a time. I tell my clients to concentrate on explaining their product. Not explaining the technology. But saying how people will use it, and how they will benefit. But squishy balls — don't bother!"
Maybe the attraction is swag's disposability. It hurts a bit to picture that just-launched Huawei Ascend Mate phone, with its 6.1 inch screen, being scavenged for parts on an African landfill in 2014. But all that other crap? It deserves it.