At Oscars, some celebrity freebies to be a bit less blingy

Singer Fergie shows off a product she received at the BET Awards Lounge in 2008.
Award shows often mean free loot for celebrities. But with the economy tanking, this Academy Awards season could see some subtle changes in the giveaway culture, industry insiders say.

“The country has shifted, and I think that bling is out,” said Jane Ubell-Meyer from Madison and Mulholland, which bills itself as a VIP gift bag and product placement company. “I think that people are a little more conservative and they don’t want to flaunt it in everyone’s faces.” Madison and Mulholland is focusing on “affordable luxury” this year. Ubell-Meyer said that her company paid careful attention to the vendors in her suite this year and that it was important to create what she hopes is a respectful and thoughtful image. Previous years’ offerings from Madison and Mulholland events included a $5,000 commode, a $5,000 vacation, a $3,500 diamond watch and rides on private jets. Freebies this year will be scaled back from the “old days” — before this year’s recession and last year’s writers’ strike — to include a high-end vacuum cleaner worth several hundred dollars, a handbag worth about $200, a toothbrush sanitizing gadget for around $30 and handmade jewelry. But one of the biggest suites in Hollywood is still going all out. Gavin Keilly, CEO of GBK Productions, told CNN that plenty of high-end products were scheduled for his lounge, which caters to Academy Award nominees and presenters. “It’s amazing to me that even in these times, [companies are showing off big-ticket items],” he said. “I think it is even more blingy.” Among those “blingy” items: $10,000 vacations to a destination spa, $8,000 to $18,000 watches, and a year’s worth of Botox, Restylane and microdermabrasion valued at $3,000. The price of free publicity Swag suites and gifting lounges — events that companies use to get their products into the hands of celebrities — are valuable during a recession, Ubell-Meyer and Keilly say. The primary goal is to invite celebrities whose pictures show up in Us Weekly, People and other magazines. The free exposure that comes with celebrities stopping and posing for a picture with a new product is worth more than putting together a print or TV ad.

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But getting a product into the hands of a star like Tina Fey comes at a price. At Keilly’s lounge, for example, clients pay $5,000 to $10,000, depending on the type of vendor. And most of them have asked for a discount this year. “Everyone always tries to get a deal, but this year, over any year, they are trying harder,” he said. “Some regulars I have offered a discount to because I don’t want them going to a competitor.” In exchange, attendees of the $100,000 event will pick up their freebies as they are escorted through five 1,000-square-foot rooms, each of which will be decorated in the theme of a best-picture nominee, Keilly said. He estimated there were at least five to six other extensive lounges for the Oscars. Lash Fary, whose Distinctive Assets company prepares a gift bag for the nonwinning nominees in the major categories, said there are as many as 10 events around town. Like Keilly, he said companies sought lower promotional fees. Ubell-Meyer also said her company was working with clients on lower prices. Fary, whose company produced a lounge for the Grammys, said he has seen a decline in the number of companies that have expressed interest in being part of the Distinctive Assets gift bag. “Certainly there are fewer companies that have $10,000 to $20,000 to spend on celebrity goods,” he said, referring to the price for the Grammys lounge. “But with that said, there are still a bunch of huge companies out there that are willing to sign up.” One company interested in gaining publicity from the GBK lounge was Senseo, a well-established coffee maker in Europe that wants to grow its brand image in the United States. The company is trying to convince consumers that its single-serve coffee maker produces a cup of coffee that is better and less expensive than what premium shops, like Starbucks, have to offer. “For what we’re getting, the exposure, we feel it’s a really strong value for potentially reaching [our target audience] with the right influencers,” said John Risley, director of marketing and sales for Senseo. He said that one of the factors that closed the deal with GBK was the production company’s charitable-giving policy. Keilly said his folks had long given a percentage of the profits from the lounge, which has 35 to 40 vendors, to charity. But this year, they will make donations in the names of the celebrities who attend. Suites increasingly have a charity connection. “Celebrities feel good about coming to this event, because they feel like they are making a difference,” Keilly said. In the end though, it is all about pairing the recognizable and loved faces of celebrities with new products from older companies and new companies with even newer stuff. “It really does increase sales,” Ubell-Meyer said.