To work in a certain type of women’s media means that every day brings new and bountiful gifts from publicists and PR companies, looking to curry both favor and coverage. For most publications, this is an unexamined fact of life — a fun perk that no one really talks about, lest it disappear forever. Racked took the opposite approach, analyzing and tracking six months of swag as a means of addressing the sticky issue of ethics in fashion and beauty journalists, executed with an admirable transparency.
In just six months, Racked reports it was sent over $95,000 worth of free merchandise—including clothing, shoes, and beauty products—from different PR companies and brands desperate for promotion, engagement and Instagram likes. That dollar number is astonishing, but overall it’s a drop in the bucket for brands desperate to get their products into the hands of influencers; as Racked itself notes, the sum total is a “snapshot of what brands send a relatively small publication on a routine basis,” nothing near what companies likely send big-name titles like Vogue.
An accompanying piece explores the swag racket from the publicist’s point of view; “gifting,” as it’s called, sounds like a lot of work for only the potential of payoff. If a PR agent sends an editor a lipstick-shaped piñata full of lip gloss for the holidays, for instance, there is absolutely no guarantee that said editor will write about the lip gloss. Some editors, per Racked, donate their mountains of unused cosmetics to charities like Bottomless Closet, which helps women prepare for job interviews. That cycle—from promotional throwaway to thoughtful recycling—is good. What’s ethically murkier, and discussed with much less honesty, is the resale market—how editors take the massive amounts of stuff they get for free and sell it for money.
In her piece about the lucrative resale market, Racked’s Chavie Lieber reported on the unspoken phenomenon of say, an editor selling her free Adidas Yeezys on Grailed for $500, and not feeling bad about it. For some people Lieber interviewed, selling the stuff they’re sent for free makes up for the fact that they make very little money. Some editors will sell their clothing at Buffalo Exchange or Crossroads; others will take to eBay or consignment shops. Reselling the swag they get is their right, but is it ethical? Does it matter where you got the Coach bag you dragged out from under your desk and trotted over to your nearest reseller? Should you feel bad if you’re selling something that you got for free? It’s a grey area, ethically, but as Lieber points out, it’s almost expected by those who work in legacy women’s media as a given—selling a Prada mini-backpack and a stack of free workout clothes is another level to the initial perk of receiving the clothes in the first place. Sell the shoes, pocket the money, eat the rich.
To be clear—at Jezebel, we rarely receive anything of great worth sent our way from publicity companies, and when we do write about products, even in our beauty column, we try to err on the side of transparency; our Shit I Bought shopping column, for instance, is exclusively comprised of shit we actually bought, and anything sent to us as promo swag is automatically disqualified from it. Aside from the piles of books that litter each of our desks and the Snoop Dogg branded gumball slot machine that I am currently staring at as I write, we generally don’t get anything of the caliber that Racked does. Once, for some reason, I got a giant box of popsicles that I shared with the office—that was a big day.