Holiday gift mania

Tis the season for journalists to be flooded with gifts from start-ups eager for attention.

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On the first day of Christmas, my P.R. love sent to me jasmine body lotion, a bar of grapefruit soap and face cream with Vitamin C.

I must be the most popular girl in cyberspace! Or so I would be led to believe if I didn’t know that every other technology journalist is arriving at work these days to a mailbox stuffed with sparkling silver boxes, be-ribboned packages and bulging FedEx packets. The holiday season has begun in Public Relations Land, and this year, technology journalists are reaping the bounty.

With Christmas coming and e-commerce expectations on the rise, dot-com companies have padded marketing budgets in hopes of convincing journalists to feature their Web sites or products. This is a year-round affair, but it’s stepped up each fall in honor of those ubiquitous standbys of holiday-time journalism — holiday gift guides and e-commerce site surveys. With the dizzying array of Internet retailers hoping to break into the market this year, there’s been an extra powerful flood of P.R. bounty.

In the last few weeks, the Salon office has been deluged with an embarrassment of marketing riches. There were the silver hatboxes full of natural body products from Ingredients.com, two of which arrived in our office this week alone; plus a lucite box touting the new BananaRepublic.com Web site, which included, as a token of the site’s affection, a mother-of-pearl caviar serving set (a $38 value, according to the P.R. materials that came with it). The caviar, however, was not included.



We’ve gotten Gap backpacks and laptop bags galore — most tastefully embroidered with logos and slogans — along with the usual cornucopia of baseball hats and T-shirts no one ever wears. There are gift certificates that appear unbidden, such as one from a company called BlindGift.com, which came wrapped in a beautiful silver box, offering me a half-dozen chocolate-covered-strawberry roses if I was interested in testing its new service.

Nielsen//NetRatings sent a Wilson baseball mitt and official baseball; both were branded with a prominent Nielsen//NetRatings logo, which is why we can remember where they came from. Other schwag — such as the colorfully stitched juggling balls and the Casio G-Shock watch, which if I recall correctly was packed along with some kind of action video game I was encouraged to review — was quickly separated from the P.R. material it came with. Who can tell, a month on, where those leather motorcycle gloves and tire pressure gauge came from? Was it the business software or the racing game? Doesn’t matter, I suppose, since I wasn’t going to write about either.

These kinds of gifts offer an unusual dilemma for journalists — ethically, of course, you just aren’t supposed to accept gifts from companies that you write about. But these gifts arrive unbidden, usually from strangers and often from companies you would never cover. Employing the strictest ethical guidelines, journalists would have to send this stuff back — but that would probably triple our postage costs.

Should you, as we often do, stick the arrivals in a box and donate them to libraries and shelters? Or can you give that watch to an office mate or friend who won’t be writing about the company? Can you keep anything without jeopardizing your integrity? My skin happened to be quite dry last week, thanks to the winter chill, so I used a dab of that Vitamin C face lotion: Now I wonder if I should be feeling guilty about it.

Pity the poor dot-com start-up. This obscenity of spending will, occasionally, cause me to recall the name of a company, but it won’t bribe me to write a story about the wonders of the firm that sent the gift. It certainly hasn’t so far — unless you count this article. (I suppose that now that I’ve mentioned a few of these companies by name, they’ll consider the money well-spent.) More often than not, the thought of all that marketing money being blown on undeserved presents leaves me slightly nauseated.

If a company really wanted to stand out this holiday season, it could put those funds toward a better cause: a hefty donation toward a deserving charity. It may not make headlines, but then neither do all the baubles they send us.

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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