Some Notes On Swag

The uses, abuses, and absurdities of movie PR tie-ins

Some Notes On Swag

I have on my shelf a prized heirloom that I intend to pass along to future generations, who if they have any taste will fight over it like dogs. It is a plastic bubble filled with some sort of liquid – could be water, could be kerosene – inside of which a tiny Marge Gunderson stands over a dead body with an overturned car nearby. When you give it a shake, little plastic flakes fly though the air. It’s a “Fargo” snow globe, a relic of film publicity a quarter century old. It’s also the best swag I’ve ever received.

Swag is a fact of life for a film critic – the promotional detritus that falls like mouse droppings from a movie’s publicity campaign. The term has a long history, dating from the 1960s in its current usage (free P.R. materials given to the press and public) but serving as a term for “ill-gotten booty” or “loot” since at least the 1600s. In the past few decades, it’s acquired a slightly camp air, since most movie swag is disposable at best and bizarre at worst, with “cheesily functional” being a general mid-level descriptor. Yes, a “Reality Bites” beach towel has utility but it’s also good for a Gen-X seaside chortle. You can always regift a “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” tote bag to a friend who loved the books or the movie or who just wants to advertise their ironic pop-culture bona fides.

Mostly, though, the field represents an endless landfill of keychains, baseball caps, T-shirts, and notepads – junk produced solely to justify a marketing department’s budget to the higher-ups. It’s on the other end of the spectrum that things get weird and we move beyond camp into the genuinely surreal. Here we have stuff like the “Fatal Attraction” jacket (useful for terrifying first dates, I guess) and the “Rain Man” boxer shorts (useful for terrifying third dates), swag that ascends to a higher plane of promo lunacy. These are the artifacts that lead to gobsmacked Twitter accounts like Movie Promotional Merch Unlimited and books like “For Promotional Use Only: A Catalog of Hollywood Movie Swag and Promo Merch from 1978-2005.” The latter has just been published by the hip indie-movie distributor A24, and it includes such giveaway felicities as a five-piece “Being John Malkovich” nesting doll and a “Cast Away” Wilson volleyball, complete with bloody handprint.

As implied by the subtitle of the A24 book, the Golden Age of movie swag may be over. These days, it’s Netflix and Amazon Prime Video and not the traditional studios that have the cash reserves to bankroll giveaways, which increasingly take the form of absurdly lavish coffee table tie-in books. In 2021 alone, I’ve dragged in from my porch back-breaking tomes devoted to “The Power of the Dog,” “The Hand of God,” and “Passing,” which join the teetering stack of doorstops from previous years.

They pose the question that all swag poses: What exactly is supposed to be happening here? What’s the quid pro quo? I get the purpose of “The Hangover” bottle opener or the “Field of Dreams” tote bag – that’s pure brand-awareness broadcasting. But am I supposed to be so dazzled by a deluxe “Marriage Story” box that packages not one, but two art books (one for each of the main characters) that I rush to give the movie four stars? I already did that before I got the books. Is an eight-pound “Hand of God” book going to make me more aware of a movie that’s already on my radar? And what, dear God, am I supposed to do with the fully operational chainsaw sent to me by The Orchard, producers of the 2018 release “The Hummingbird Project”? That’s when swag turns in on itself and lands with a negative thud. If The Orchard had taken the costs involved in purchasing and shipping however many chainsaws to the press and given the money to charity instead, I’d be much more inclined to respect the movie. That goes for the Netflix art books, too.

And yet. I count my “Fargo” snow globe among my most prized possessions, along with its twin, a globe that features the Steve Buscemi character’s legs sticking out of an itty-bitty woodchipper with red and white snowflakes whirling around. I treasure my “Birdman” action figure, and you will pry the “Radio” radio – a PR remnant of an absolutely dreadful 2003 movie featuring Cuba Gooding Jr. as an intellectually disabled team mascot – out of my cold, dead hands. The best swag is a compressed  bouillon cube of everything that makes a particular movie memorable – or, in the case of “Radio,” memorably bad. That said, if anyone has a line on a set of those “Being John Malkovich” nesting dolls, please let me know.

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