How the Oscars Goodie Bag Helped to Usher in the Age of Influencers

Nick Pope
·6-min read
Photo credit: Frazer Harrison
Photo credit: Frazer Harrison

There’s a scene in the 2006 episode of The Sopranos, ‘Luxury Lounge’, where Christopher Moltisanti randomly finds himself in a celebrity gifting suite with the actor Sir Ben Kingsley. He looks around the room, mouth agog, big brows furrowed, at all the pricey gadgets and Swiss watches being handed away for free. It’s a lot to take in. Kingsley breezes around this Aladdin’s Cave for A-listers, sweeping up swag bags, until Moltisanti stops him in his tracks and speaks for the millions of people watching at home. “How,” he asks, “is that even fucking possible?”

Fifteen years later, we’re far better acquainted with the freebie-industrial complex. It still shocks on occasion, but it doesn’t surprise. Just look at how the annual reveal of the Oscars goodie bag, a cornucopia of gifts for Academy Awards nominees, has become a bonafide cultural event, inspiring breathless headlines the world over. This year's haul includes a three night stay in a Swedish lighthouse, an NFT, a face mask that’s also a wristband, a plastic surgery voucher and, perhaps most surprisingly, a Peta hammer for rescuing dogs from hot cars. The total value of the bag's contents is well into the six figures. And as the bounty has grown, so too has its influence – particularly on our Instagram feeds, where the gifting economy has spread far beyond the Hollywood Hills.

Around the turn of the millennium, when Australian entrepreneur Lash Fary first suggested to brands that they should give their product away to celebrities, he was met with bemusement by many. Now the ‘Sultan of Swag’ organises celebrity luxury lounges for almost every major American awards show, from the Grammys to the Tonys to the American Music Awards. The Oscars ‘Everybody Wins’ gift bag, which is offered to all twenty-five of the nominees in the acting and directing categories, is now in its nineteenth year (though it should be said that it isn’t an official tie-in with the ceremony, and that the Academy Awards even sued his company, Distinctive Assets, in 2016 for allegedly misleading people on that point). Nowadays nobody questions the logic behind the marketing tactic, but Fary wasn’t the first to harness the power of celebrity affiliation.

Photo credit: Vivien Killilea
Photo credit: Vivien Killilea

In the 18th century, an English potter and abolitionist named Josiah Wedgwood supplied his products to Queen Charlotte, who eventually allowed him to begin describing his work as “Queen’s Ware”. He even received the title ‘Potter to Her Majesty’, a commendation that sent sales through the roof. "The demand for this Creamcolour, Alias, Queen Ware, Alias, Ivory, still increases,” he wrote in 1767. “It is amazing how rapidly the use of it has spread all most over the whole Globe." The practice continued in one form or another for over two centuries, before it found its spiritual home in the mid-Nineties with the Hollywood gifting lounge.

It was Karen Wood, a talent coordinator on major award shows, who originally came up with the concept. Her logic: celebrities were often late to rehearsal, but a room full of freebies might convince them to show up on time. The only trade-off was that they’d take a picture with the product and listen to the brand owner’s spiel (although nowadays they have to pay a hefty tax bill on the value of the gifts, too). “Lo and behold, all these companies started contacting me, clamouring to have this exclusive access to celebrities. That’s when the light bulb went off,” she told The Telegraph in 2019. Her company, Backstage Creations, delivers suites and bags to events like the Emmys and the MTV Movie Awards. The ultimate hope of product seeding, of course, is that a celebrity might publicly endorse it (like in this Tom Ford interview, where he and the host light-heartedly reference 'Hostess Donettes' eleven times in the space of thirty-five seconds), or be snapped using it by paparazzi.

Perhaps the most successful and mutually beneficial example of celebrity gifting came in 2004 when the American company Energy Brands delivered their drink, Glaceau VitaminWater, to 50 Cent. According to MarketingProfs, the rapper went on to wax lyrical about the product in interviews, and he was eventually invited to become a brand spokesperson and shareholder. Three years later the VitaminWater brand was purchased by Coca-Cola for $4.1 billion, and 50 Cent is rumoured to have received up to $100 million from the buy-out.

Photo credit: Hal Horowitz - Getty Images
Photo credit: Hal Horowitz - Getty Images

A recent win for Distinctive Assets came in 2017, when Best Supporting Actress winner Viola Davis tweeted about a six-day Hawaiian holiday that the company provided in her Oscars bag. And yet four long years later, you're far more likely to see a beauty blogger enjoy a #gifted trip abroad than a Hollywood titan. For that, we can thank Instagram and the rise of influencers, who provide a supposedly low-stakes opportunity for brands to get their products in front of millions of fans.

Not every influencer is a celebrity – in fact, most are essentially anonymous to the majority of the world – but many marketers argue that they carry more value than certain household names. Not only are they easier to wrangle, but they're more agreeable when it comes to social coverage too, and you can better target people by their hobbies and interests. They often aren't tied to exclusive sponsorship deals, and it's commonly assumed that you're less likely to find your brand associated with some kind of front page scandal, too (though anyone who witnessed the many influencers who humiliated themselves on live TV trying to justify mid-pandemic jaunts to Dubai last year might disagree).

If you ask Lash Fary, traditional celebrities are still the greatest influencers of all. "There is no better brand ambassador than a celebrity. Brands now understand that you can’t win the lottery of having an Oscar nominee using and sharing your product if you haven’t bought the ticket that puts it in their hands," he tells me over email. "The social media 'influencer' is certainly an offshoot of this. One could argue about the 'significance' of that influence in comparison to that of an Oscar-nominated actor, but ultimately brand amplification takes many forms and all methods of increasing brand recognition are valuable."

Whatever the case may be, one thing's for sure: the bottom hasn't fallen out of the gift bag just yet.

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