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In the past year, I’ve been gifted a “spoken word clock,” at least two silk eye masks with my name on them, three Everlane T-shirts, an $80 electronic jump rope, that beach hat that is all over Instagram, a salad spinner, Ray Ban sunglasses, six Bkr bottles (and one S’well), roses that keep their smell for a year, and countless cutesy things from Ban.do. These are just a few examples. But I am paid to write about beauty products, not quirky consumer items. Beauty is a booming industry right now, and there’s a relentless stream of new products and brands all vying for attention. I’m just one small cog in the machine of beauty capitalism.
I receive more swag than any of my coworkers by far. I knew I received a lot of stuff, but for six months I recorded every single thing. That really drove it home. There are 1,513 items on a spreadsheet I kept. Turns out I got about five times as much as the rest of the Racked staff combined. The estimated retail value of all these items was $64,000. This was a pretty shocking number to me, but it’s likely small compared to larger sites or publications that have full beauty teams.
From a journalism standpoint, I write on a sort of continuum: I write essays, I blog, I write market stories, I write reported analyses, and I write traditional features. I love my job, and the beauty industry is a fascinating beat to cover. To do the job well, I need access to beauty products. I attend anywhere from one to 10 brand-sponsored events per week, usually leaving with a bag of products from each one. I probably make it to less than half of what I’m invited to, though, otherwise I’d have no time to actually do my job. And a day never goes by without a delivery — or six — of new products, as well as dozens of email messages alerting me to launches and asking if I’d like to try things.
Public relations companies call it gifting, but I don’t really think of getting a brand’s new spring collection as a gift. I need companies to tell me when they are releasing new collections, and in order to really recommend something, I have to try it. It also keeps me on top of what’s happening in the beauty market, because I often learn about launches early and can identify interesting trends. From the brands’ perspective, sending products to editors means potential media exposure. It can get prohibitively expensive to buy products at retail, so this system, murky as it can seem sometimes, is the norm. But I’ve never felt obligated or pressured to write about products just because a company sent it to me for free simply because I get such a ridiculous volume.
What feels really icky here is not the products I receive, but all the extras that accompany the mailings. To stand out and draw attention to the product, brands will often send elaborate themed packages with gifts that sometimes cost more than the product does. It’s hard not to think of all this extra stuff as buttering up by beauty companies. Those items I mentioned earlier came with beauty deliveries. And they often come with special Instagram hashtags — the brands sometimes want these items to show up all over social media to build excitement and, maybe, FOMO. Just search the hashtags #trippinwithtarte or #smashboxsquadabroad to see how this plays out in the extreme example of influencer trips and the exposure those brands get. Press trips are a whole other level of gifting, and they happen a lot in beauty, though the focus has shifted more to influencers and their millions of social media followers.
I try hard to be fair and accurate, and, when appropriate, analytical, when I write stories. Never has a personalized beach ball or free iPad (yep, once got one) influenced my coverage of a brand or stopped me from being critical in a story. In fact, it often has a negative effect. I sometimes think, “Hmm, are they trying to distract me from mediocre products by giving me a Bkr bottle and a gift certificate to SoulCycle?” It’s also an optics issue. I never even want there to be a question that I wrote about a brand just because they gave me some cool swag. Once a writer loses credibility, it’s nearly impossible to regain it.
Brands know that writers count on product access, and I’ve seen the control that they try to assert over their own media coverage firsthand. Over the course of my almost eight-year career, I’ve been blacklisted by brands that took offense to things they considered negative, even if it was a source saying it in a story I’ve written and not any kind of editorializing. I’ve been left off guest lists, denied interviews, kept off product mailings, blocked from backstage access at fashion shows, screamed at on the phone by founders, and sent angry emails when I’ve said less-than-glowing things or covered news that the brand didn’t want attention on. To be fair, I also work with plenty of beauty companies who understand why stories sometimes are not 100 percent complimentary and with whom I share a genuine mutual respect.
Does this system make it harder to do my job? Sometimes. Do I think about my relationships with brands and PR agencies when I write stories? Sometimes. There are intangible benefits of having direct access to beauty company representatives besides being able to try new lipsticks before they hit the market. A lot of my stories are larger ones about brands or trends and less about specific products, and in those cases, understanding the products is only one part of a bigger picture. A phone call with a high-level executive who will give a thoughtful, meaningful, honest answer to a question is worth more than a vault of lipsticks. But it requires careful navigation and maintaining working relationships that are collegial but not too cozy with PR companies, and it takes a lot of emotional energy. I have PR sources who give me intel and scoops about new things happening and who will talk to me about controversial topics, and I consider some of these women my friends, because I’m not an automaton. The beauty industry, at least at the level I operate in, is almost entirely female, and it’s also a weirdly specific job, so having people around who understand what you do is crucial. But it results in uncomfortable situations and sharply worded emails sometimes.
At a panel of editors I sat on recently at the Indie Beauty Expo, we were asked questions about how we like to be pitched and how brands can stand out among a pile of bags in a mailroom. I said to just send me the basics; a magazine editor recommended colorful packaging and add-ons. I felt a bit like a curmudgeon. I understand that these mailings sometimes help to bring branding and messaging to life, but sending me a pineapple along with a tropical-themed collection feels wasteful. (Speaking of wasteful, I have grown deeply resentful of that crinkly paper packing confetti — the stuff that looks like someone emptied a paper shredder into a box. And one time I received a box that contained another much tinier box and a lot of helium balloons. The tiny box contained a single bottle of perfume. Two Racked editors fit into the outer box easily.)
My goal is always to tell a rich, nuanced story, to entertain, or to provide a service for our audience, my first priority. A PR’s first priority is to get positive coverage for their clients, so our goals are sometimes at odds. There’s also a real danger in this business that a positive story can look like an advertorial. An extreme example: Recently at Racked, we requested an interview with a celebrity who was working with a beauty brand. We were told that her team had to approve the final story and that we could only leave it up on the site for a month. That’s not journalism — it’s an ad that the company didn’t have to pay for. We didn’t do it.
People always ask me what I do with all the stuff I receive. I keep some of it, either for testing or because they’re products I want. (Over the years I’ve learned to get less hoard-y and only keep what I know I’ll use.) Then I give a lot of it away. There is a “free beauty” bin next to my desk at work that I feed pretty frequently and which Vox Media employees scavenge immediately. I make goodie bags for my friends and family, I re-gift things at holidays, I send bags to work with my husband for the women in his office, and I have a growing network of teen girls who can never get enough highlighter and brow products. After all of that, I still usually have multiple, full boxes of unused products. For a few years now, I’ve been lugging those boxes every few months to my local Dress for Success chapter. This year, we’ll have a beauty sale to sell the leftovers from this project to Vox Media employees and donate the proceeds to that charity.
The exercise of quantifying my swag definitely led me to really analyze my own role in a system that favors gushy coverage with very little criticism of brands and companies. I always sort of assumed, “Oh, everyone knows beauty writers get products for free!” But they don’t. One of the outcomes is that you’ll be seeing a more explicit, standardized disclosure (with our updated ethics policy) on stories where we have received free products. I hope the other outcome of being transparent about this issue is that our readers trust me and the other Racked writers even more than they may have before. That’s obviously more valuable than all the cute monogrammed makeup bags in the world.