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A pile of miscellaneous items, including a bong, a pineapple shaped lamp, dog toys, and a microphone.

Filed under:

But What Do Publicists Think of Swag?

Tens of thousands of dollars go into editorial gifting for a payoff that’s impossible to predict.

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Fashion and beauty editors have been known, on occasion, to post Instagram photos of their desks when they return to the office after time off. What were functional work spaces are suddenly avalanches of cardboard boxes and paper bags filled with products, all sent by brands in the hope of grabbing their attention. For Alice*, a publicist at a makeup and skincare company, these pictures are a rough sight to take in.

“It’s so disheartening to see the pile. It can be really like, ‘How can I compete with that?’” says Alice. She’s sent plenty of similar packages over the course of her career. “But hopefully your product speaks for itself.”

“Gifting” is the widespread, longstanding practice of brands sending products to fashion and beauty journalists free of charge. The volume of deliveries to a given publication depends on its prestige and its editors’ social media followings, but even relatively small titles can receive multiple items a day, nearly every day.

Some publicists distinguish between “samples for review,” which might be delivered with little more than a press release, and gifts like flowers, cupcakes, and free manicures. This way of thinking stems from the fact that some products, like cosmetics and period underwear, need to be experienced intimately before a writer can form an opinion of them. But the line between gifts and samples is blurry since they’re both free, for keeps, and often arrive in the same package, as with a new perfume nestled in a bouquet of roses. To the recipient, if not always the giver, the two have the same classification: free things.

Certain outlets have ethics policies prohibiting writers from accepting goods or services over a specific dollar amount, but many fashion magazines and websites don’t, or simply require that writers add a disclosure if they write about free product. (Our ethics policy can be found here.) Still, journalists break the rules. Anna*, a woman who recently left fashion PR, recalls sending gifts to editors’ homes so they could skirt their employers’ strict ethics policies.

Numerous PR professionals interviewed for this story, almost all of whom asked to remain anonymous to protect their client relationships, describe gifting as a necessity and a useful tool for bonding with journalists and winning brands coverage. Sending a gift before a product launch can motivate reporters to write about it, sending a gift after a story has run can be a memorable way to say thank you, and sending a gift at any time can increase brand awareness. For publicists, the ideal outcome of editorial gifting is a standalone story or a social media post featuring the product.

Lise Keeney, who works in PR at 3D printing company Shapeways, says that gifting is crucial for showing fashion editors how far the technology has advanced and debunking their preconceptions about the sophistication of 3D-printed objects.

“People know what sneakers feel like, they know what denim trousers feel like. But people don’t quite yet know what a 3D-printed gold ring is going to feel like,” says Keeney, who can print a customized pendant necklace with a journalist’s name on it for $25.

Other PR teams send product when they feel they aren’t getting enough coverage from a publication. They promise a gift at a press event if they want to ensure that reporters will show up. And they engage in ongoing, informal gifting throughout the year, spurred on by conversations with reporters.

“If I know a writer wanted to try a product, or wanted to get it for their brother, I’m like, let me help you out,” says Emily*, who does PR in-house at a fashion brand. “The more people who are wearing it and using it, the better.”

A large mound of cardboard boxes, paper bags, and packaging materials.

A round of gifting can cost tens of thousands of dollars, but its impact can be hard to predict and quantify; sending a reporter a package may not result in a story right away but could make them think warmly of the brand in the future. Tara*, an agency publicist who reps contemporary clothing brands, always writes a full recap of press events for her clients, noting how many editors came and what items they were most interested in. She doesn’t bother doing that for a round of gifting.

As with giving a present to a friend, many publicists feel that editorial gifting shouldn’t be done with the expectation of getting anything in return, and they advise clients to think the same way. There’s no guarantee that journalists will write about a product or post a photo of it on Instagram, and it’s impossible to prevent them from giving it to their mom or selling it on eBay. (Publicists are well aware that both happen.) In the face of that uncertainty, publicists say they try to be as strategic as possible about what, when, and to whom they gift.

PR teams and brands consider a variety of factors when deciding which journalists and editors to include in a round of gifting. Who has covered the brand in the last six months? Who never responds to emails? Who came to the last press preview? Who requests samples all the time? Who’s likely to respond to the product? Who works at a major publication? Who has a huge social media following?

“Certain clients are like, ‘Oh, she only has 1,000 followers? No way.’ They only want 10,000 or above,” says Tara. “Or a client will look back at an editor’s Instagram and be like, ‘I don’t think they post much product. They’re never going to tag us,’ and then we’ll just scratch the editor. Our more democratic brands generally don’t care, and they understand the idea of creating awareness and building the relationship.”

Even within a gifting list, publicists create tiers of priority based on the same factors. The top group might receive denim and a sweatshirt from a clothing brand, Anna explained by way of example, and the B and C squads will get a sweatshirt and a hat, respectively. When publicists gift to multiple people at the same publication, they’re careful to respect office politics and hierarchies so as not to tick off anyone.

But it’s often the mid-tier market editor who writes product roundups — not the editor-in-chief — that is the ideal target of routine giftings. Marina*, a VP at a fashion PR agency, says that when her agency does gift an EIC, it’s only “the best and finest,” with color, size, and style specifics hammered out in advance with their assistant. Marina focuses on helping designers build relationships with top editors by arranging in-person meetings, not by sending product.

Beauty and fashion editors have received freebies from brands for decades, but the proliferation of digital publications and the rise of social media has warped the proportions of the practice like a fun house mirror. Brands often lump together social media influencers and editors on the same gifting lists, so the number of people receiving product has exploded. When Aiden* started working in PR at a haircare brand, influencer gifting was “nonexistent.” By the time he left the company last year, his team was sending new products to roughly 60 print editors, 60 to 100 digital editors, and between 300 and 600 influencers. Aiden sees that as a relatively aggressive strategy.

Aiden’s experience highlights a key difference between beauty and fashion brands: scale. Fashion publicists more commonly include 5, 25, or 50 editors in a single round of gifting, depending on how expensive the product is and how much money the brand has.

As the number of gifting recipients has grown, Emily has noticed brands pumping up their packaging flair in the hope of getting Instagrammed by editors, a phenomenon that’s exacerbated by the fact that brands can see what their competitors are sending. But Alice says that editor gifts are on the whole less opulent than they were before digital media came along.

“Ten years ago, you had a set of 30 key [magazine editors], max, who you really wanted to get their eyes on your brand,” says Alice. “You could focus all your time, energy, and budget on those people, but now you have digital media, influencers, and YouTube vloggers. Unless you’re backed by a [corporation] like Estée Lauder or LVMH, it’s hard to afford the gratuitous gifting of the old days because the pool is a lot wider now.”

When Alice says “gratuitous gifting,” she means beauty brands sending editors, for example, designer handbags in addition to their products. Once, she sent a fur coat to an editor after he wrote a favorable review of a new beauty collection.

Even without that kind of reward, gifting can be expensive, especially in beauty. Samples of a new product are sent to editors months before an item hits stores — this builds in time for magazine staffers to try it out and write about it for print — but some brands don’t do a full-scale manufacturing run until closer to its consumer launch date because they don’t want to pay for warehousing the product for longer than they have to. That means these brands are making a separate, smaller batch just for editors and influencers, resulting in products that are significantly more expensive per piece than what shoppers will eventually see in stores.

Taking into account the costs of express shipping and messenger services, Alice says, “I would say budgets for sampling for the year can easily be hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

Because sending goods to editors can be a crapshoot, publicists have their own hacks for maximizing their odds of positive reception. Tara sends a note to editors in advance asking if they’re interested in receiving product, and if they’re not, she can cross them off her list. Anna finds that offering a choice in color or style results in more enthusiasm. Marina recommends sending accessories by mail and gifting clothing at in-store events so editors can get the right size. Monogramming gets a great response, she adds.

Jeans and other denim items, laid out on the floor.

Small brands have to be especially careful to maximize what they have to offer. Anna says she has worked with fashion designers who don’t have large budgets but are able to gift inexpensive production samples to editors. A brand can also turn leftover inventory into a gifting moment.

Jeff Johnson, co-founder of outerwear brand The Arrivals, says that his team is conservative about gifting to editors. As a direct-to-consumer company, The Arrivals doesn’t subject its jackets to a standard wholesale markup, meaning it can offer items to shoppers at a lower price ($295 to $1,200) but has slimmer profit margins than a traditional company would have for direct sales. That cost structure makes it harder for The Arrivals to justify giving pieces away for free. On top of that, the brand produces some seasonal “test styles” (ones that are not part of the core collection) in very small volumes, as few as 25 pieces, making it impossible to gift those without critically depleting its stock.

So The Arrivals gifts to a handful of editors and offers discount codes to the rest. In any case, Johnson says the brand focuses the bulk of its gifting on a set of microinfluencers, “New York kids who have done shoots for us and who are living the spirit of what The Arrivals is.”

The Arrivals didn’t start gifting to editors until a year and a half after launch, when the team hired an external PR agency that encouraged its founders to participate in it. Johnson and his co-founder, Kal Vepuri, didn’t come from fashion — architecture and angel investing, respectively — so they weren’t aware that gifting was such a common practice. Andy Dunn, who was similarly new to fashion when he founded menswear brand Bonobos, describes gifting as an initially “confounding” part of the industry’s machinations.

Some publicists express ambivalence about gifting, too. Emily feels that the packaging waste associated with gifting is excessive and thinks the spectacle of it has gotten out of hand. (“Who needs a four-tier cake delivered to your office to talk about a cream?” she asks.) But she believes there’s a way to send product that’s engaging, tight, and thoughtful.

“It definitely makes you question, when you look at an article in a magazine, was that item included because they think it’s really cool, or was it included because they have a really good relationship with the brand’s PR team? Or was it included because the brand is an advertiser and they have to?” says Anna, pointing to the fact that fashion magazines give preferred placement to advertisers in cover and editorial shoots.

Of gifting, she adds, “I think it’s bribery 90 percent of the time.”

Still, some publicists argue that it’s important for editors to get hands-on time with consumer goods. It’s the practical argument: Journalists write better stories when they’ve lived with the product, and that benefits the brand.

“If we’re asking these individuals to write or report on something, we want them to have experienced it,” says Rachel*, a director at a PR agency that works with clothing brands. “I typically won’t take on a business unless I’ve seen the product or tried it firsthand. I would expect the same thing of the gatekeepers and decision-makers in editorial.”

*Names have been changed at the request of the individual.

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