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March 2, 2006

By Heather Svokos

The first Oscar goody bags, back in 1989, were simple things. Maybe some lipstick, perhaps a bottle of champagne, a token thank-you to the celebs who showed up to present the statues on the big night.

Seventeen years later, they have become a verb ("gifting"), an industry unto itself -- an obscenely lavish behemoth whose diamond-encrusted talons have reached all pockets of Hollywood and beyond: $25,000 trips to Hawaii and $1,500 cashmere blankets.

And in a way, it's our fault. We, the media. We, the Us Weekly-reading public. We are morbidly fascinated with the goody bag.

"What's in it?" we drool. And at the same time, we judge. Why, for instance, can Gwyneth Paltrow show up at the Golden Globes and take home a cruise to Antarctica and Tasmania, when she can pretty much afford to buy Tasmania?

The Oscars, the Golden Globes, the Grammys -- heck, even the Independent Spirit Awards -- if it's a celebrity-studded event, it has a gift bag attached. And the lead-up to Oscar week in particular has become a belching festival of gifting.

In 2002, Entertainment Weekly reported that the official Oscars goody bag was valued at $20,000, which seems downright quaint compared with last year's price tag: about $100,000.

And this year's, to be presented at Sunday night's awards ceremonies? "Brushing up against $150,000," says Jenna Seiden, co-founder of Swagtime ( www.swagtime.com), a Web site that keeps track of all the goody-bag offerings at celebrity events -- and lets us know where we can buy them and for how much.

"In the last 10 years, five years, it has exploded," says Clarissa Cruz, a reporter at Entertainment Weekly who's watched the gifting trend. "Every year I'm just kind of floored by how much more excessive it becomes. And how funny it is how people who can afford to buy all of these things just get more and more."

Yes, that really cracks us up, too.

So the question is: Why?

In a classic case of give-the-people-what-they-want, once the media started reporting on what was in the gift bags, the public ate it up. More publicity meant more ka-ching for the companies with a product in the bag. From there, the ante would only be upped from year to year. (Hollywood loves an expensive sequel.)

Anymore, the phrase "gift bag" is a bit of a misnomer. Celebs now collect their loot in "gifting lounges" or "gifting suites." (One major exception is the Academy Awards. Although a multitude of companies provide Oscar-week gift baskets, the folks who put together the official Oscars gift bag -- the Holy Grail of swag -- have not yet succumbed to the notion of a special giveaway room.)

There are now marketing firms either exclusively or partially dedicated to gifting: They finagle their clients into the official Oscars bag, and get bragging rights in the process. One such company is Evins Communications. One of its clients ponied up the most expensive item in the goody bag: a $25,000 stay in Waikiki, at the Vera Wang Suite at Halekulani.

Which is why it's at first a little startling to hear that Mathew Evins -- CEO of Evins Communications -- thinks the gifting phenomenon has grown out of control.

"There's almost a basket for the opening of an envelope," Evins says, adding that there are now close to 15 different Oscar-related baskets. "It has both diluted the experience and created a tremendous amount of clutter. What is an official basket, what isn't?"

For instance, among the unofficial Oscar gifters is M&Ms, which this year gave nominees a $1,850 basket that included an iPod Nano and a Kodak digital camera, according to Us Weekly.

Which is not to be confused with the official Oscar bag, given to presenters and performers. No keychains or snowglobes here; every item in this bag must sell for at least $500, says Swagtime's Seiden. Some examples:

Dinner party at Morton's Steakhouse ($1,500)

Frette's cashmere leather-trimmed travel blanket ($1,495)

14-karat white gold pendant with a Tahitian cultured peal and diamond ($1,300)

Krups Espresso machine and illy's Espresso cup collection ($600)

Vonage cordless phone system ($550)

But don't hate the celebrities for being beautiful and scoring swag. At least, they're not the only ones reaping the benefits. It's free product placement, when an ad might've cost more in the end. All the better if your product is flashing around on Terrence Howard's wrist and someone snaps a photo of it.

"It's more about getting the products out there," says Swagtime's Seiden. "It's exploded in a good way, in that these brands are recognized, and it's a good way to get their brands out to the public, and people forget that this is how these small companies actually get exposure."

Before the craze mushroomed, say, 10 years ago, companies had to be coaxed to contribute something to the goody bag. "But now," Cruz says, "because there's so much press surrounding what's in the goody bag and everyone oohs and aahs over how glittery and expensive everything is, people want to be in this goody bag."

The phenomenon has even spread to the noncelebrity world, to the point where even a child's birthday party is très déclassé these days if it doesn't have a goody bag attached. Even local charities get into the act: There are gift-bag committees for benefits like John Peter Smith Hospital's Evening at the Academy Awards and Harris Methodist Health Foundation's Puttin' on the Pink. Unlike the Hollywood shindigs, though, they have to keep their goody bags in check -- keep the costs down, rely on donations: It's for charity, after all.

Still, as civilians, many of us still can't help but covet the high-class junk in the Hollywood goody bag. It taps into our aspirational nature. When InStyle or Extra! lets us know about it, we can't look away.

"You may not be able to afford Eva Longoria's Chanel bag," Cruz says, "but you might be able to pick up a pair of jeans you saw her getting in a goody bag."




 
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†AK and HI residents pay $29.95 shipping. ††Limited time offer. Valid for residents of the United States (&DC), 18 years or older, who open new accounts. Offer good while supplies last and only on new account activations. One kit per account/household. Offer cannot be combined with any other discounts, promotions or plans and is not applicable to past purchases. Good while supplies last. Allow up to 2 weeks for shipping. Other restrictions may apply.

1Unlimited calling and other services for all residential plans are based on normal residential, personal, non-commercial use. A combination of factors is used to determine abnormal use, including but not limited to: the number of unique numbers called, calls forwarded, minutes used and other factors. Subject to our Reasonable Use Policy and Terms of Service.

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HIGH SPEED INTERNET REQUIRED. †VALID FOR NEW LINES ONLY. RATES EXCLUDE INTERNET SERVICE, SURCHARGES, FEES AND TAXES. DEVICE MAY BE REFURBISHED. If you subscribe to plans with monthly minutes allotments, all call minutes placed from both from your home and registered ExtensionsTM phones will count toward your monthly minutes allotment. ExtensionsTM calls made from mobiles use airtime and may incur surcharges, depending on your mobile plan. Alarms, TTY and other systems may not be compatible. Vonage 911 service operates differently than traditional 911. See www.vonage.com/911 for details.

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