The first conference I ever attended was the BlogHer Reach Out tour in Washington, DC. It was a one day event, and I had a chance to meet some amazing women like Erin Kotecki Vest, Cecily Kellogg, and Joanne Bamberger. I learned so much that day including how to hack my HTML thanks to my new hero Liz Henry and the reasons why I should move from Blogger to WordPress. I also learned the word swag. When I got off the elevator to check in at registration, I was confused by the gauntlet of tables with everything from children’s workbooks to feminine products. Why were these people here? And why were they giving things to me? I went home with a handful of Hooked on Phonics books for the kids and the LeapFrog Tag, which I won by putting my homemade business card into a jar on the way into a session. I still had no idea how this strange symbiotic relationship worked.
Four months later I spoke at the first Blissdom, and here I received a Lands End tote bag at registration. A tote bag!?!? Apparently this swag thing was just going to keep getting better. I loved this blogging world!
Despite the crash course in stuff that I had received at these first two blogging events, nothing could prepare me for the deluge of product that awaited me at the BlogHer Conference in the summer of 2009, just weeks after my one year bloggiversary. Women warned me to take a second, empty suitcase. I scoffed. What kind of crazy are we talking about here?! In the end I left a stack of items for the maid service at the hotel along with a note and a tip, all arranged in a little plastic shrine to capitalism. I also jammed things into my suitcase, seriously considering leaving behind shoes that weren’t that comfortable anyway to make room for a cool new bottle of shampoo. I also spent $60 shipping yet more totes (they were waterproof!!), a yoga mat, and some organic peanut butter among other things that would not fit into my bags for the trip home.
I waited anxiously in anticipation of that box arriving so I could show my husband my treasures, these amazing free things that were given to me JUST BECAUSE I BLOGGED! But when the box arrived I found myself feeling a little disappointed. The waterproof tote with my name on it was still super cool. And that yoga mat was killer. The peanut butter? Okay, sure. Everything else? Well…
And that was when I stopped worrying about swag. Like the kid who steals his dad’s cigarettes and smokes the whole pack until he ends up vomiting all night, I had had my fill. The truth is that there are brands that I connected with at that event that I still work with today. I would have worked with them without the free product. There are also products that I use today because I tried them that weekend, but that’s the point. I tried the product. They gave me a sample of the actual product. Had the Suave Professionals line given me a really great flat iron, I probably would not be using their shampoo today, which I am. Had Evolution of Smooth not given me a bunch of egg shaped lip balms, I never would have become addicted to them, which I very much am. And the e.l.f. make-up that Ted Rubin handed to me in the lobby? I still buy it at Target all the time, and it’s in every gift to my college-aged cousin. I walked away thinking that some brands had really gotten it right, while others were honestly left behind.
There was something else that came out of that BlogHer Conference that was far more sinister. For the first time mom bloggers specifically were labeled as swag whores in a huge way, fingers pointing at them as shallow and vicious, willing to do anything for free stuff. I was so deeply in the situation that I did not realize what was happening around me until stories like that one shared by George G. Smith, Jr., formerly of Crocs, began to surface in blog posts. The following year in New York City, the swag frenzy was taken to a new level as bloggers publicly, shamelessly begged for invites to private parties, not to meet with celebrities or even future clients, but to have a shot at a great swag bag. There were rumors of iPads, diamond jewelry, cameras. I certainly enjoyed giving my kids their Build-a-Bear teddies from the MomSelect suite and I love my necklace from Getting Gorgeous, but for me, it was much more fun to be above the melee of product hoarding. I still lugged items home in my tote bags (yes, more tote bags!), but I also unloaded bags of items in the swag exchange from Skullcandy headphones to Mr. Potato Head.
I honestly went to BlogHer 2011 in San Diego thinking that as a community we had moved beyond the swag hagging. I was obviously wrong. Yes, I saw the incessant begging to get into the events with the best swag for the sake of getting one more bag of stuff, but those people will always be those people. They’re the same ones who argue for thirty minutes if a machine at Chuck-E-Cheese eats their token and get upset when the goody bag their kid got at someone else’s party didn’t cost as much as what they doled out the month before. But there was more than that. At one event my business card was pulled to receive three nail polishes. This was my first win since that LeapFrog Tag reader in 2008, so I was kind of excited! And hey, nail polish! That’s easy to pack! When I went to claim my prize before leaving, the vendor apologized. It seems that “the winner” had already come to claim her three nail polishes. I pointed out that my picture is on the inside of my business card, proving that I really am me, and the sponsor and I chuckled about vultures and how they swoop in the second they see their chance… That night at the Sparklecorn party I began to hear more, how women were attending official BlogHer events with their private party swag in tow only to have it swiped from their tables while they were dancing or grabbing a drink at the bar.
All of these stories along with the images of women, professional women, weighed down with four, five bags of swag as they left the Expo Hall made me hesitate any time I picked up an item, even the official swag bag from the conference. When I finally made it through the Expo Hall in the final hour that it was open, I hesitantly took the cute Sesame Street characters for my niece and then, feeling like one item per kid was plenty, opted instead to hang out with the Hillshire Farms PR team while eating tortellini and chatted with the 3M team about the laptop Post-Its, which yes, made the trip home with me. I think I may have snagged a sponge that I wanted to try, but I also said no thank you to the Glad team even though their product was awesome. I left the free product on the table opting instead to purchase it at the grocery store because I didn’t want to walk out of the Expo Hall with a bag full of Glad. That’s bulky stuff. I didn’t want to be mistaken for that blogger.
So there it is, the long saga of how I’ve come to a place where being seen with swag has literally become embarrassing. I don’t see the state of swag changing any time soon, because the relationship between blogger and stuff must be mutually beneficial enough for it to be continuing in this wacky way. But for this blogger, I’m much happier traveling light with just enough free product to get me back in the door upon my return and enough to let me sufficiently geek out (Post-It notes that go on your LAPTOP!). Any more and I may be mugged on the way to the airport…by other bloggers leaving the conference.