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The Hollywood free way; despite recession, freebies flow as brands vie for celebrity aura.

Fretful about your Christmas gift list? Then consider this: For Hollywood celebs, Christmas is year-round. They're showered with freebies 12 months a year. And here's the reason: product placement ... on people.

Recessionary times have forced some companies to tighten their belts. But execs at hot consumer brands are more eager than ever to give jewels, gowns and whatever to any star they can summon up.

It's no surprise that Armani happily provides free gowns to Jennifer Aniston and Debra Messing for the Emmys, or that Harry Winston drapes jewels on the necks of stars heading down Oscar's red carpet.

But the generosity extends far beyond high-profile high fashion. Celebs are given cell phones; first-class tickets to London and Hawaii; rentals of BMWs, Aston Martins and Cadillacs; cosmetics; shoes; digital cameras; Fendi sunglasses; and Jimmy Choo shoes, to name a few. And don't forget the far more prosaic odds and ends, like beef jerky. Name a brand--from Nike to Prada, Sony to Nintendo--it's free for the giving, and taking.

The gift-giving is no surprise, but the extent of it is astonishing. Aside from getting gifts delivered to their house, celebs are handed goodie bags or gift baskets (sometimes worth thousands of dollars) at industry events; backstage, they can browse through an emporium of various giveaways. If that's not enough, companies like Nike have warehouses in which celebs are invited to shop for flee. And restaurants often comp them.

The reason is simple. Wrap Hollywood's image-conscious elite in your product, and fans will (presumably) follow to the cash register. In the past few years, product-placement companies have created units that specialize in celeb giveaways, and many other companies do it themselves or use their PR firms for handouts.

Corporations are desperate to rise above the clutter of traditional advertising and convey "brand authenticity" to young customers. One way to do that, the companies believe, is to show the product being used by Tom Cruise, Julia Roberts or any up-and-comer on the WB.

"Celebs are so used to this stuff," muses actress-comic Kathy Griffin. At the Billboard Music Awards, there was a bazaar backstage for stars to pick up freebies. "The guys from 'N Sync didn't have time to go, they sent their assistants to pick up stuff. Not me! I want those gifts and I want them now."

Griffin deadpans, "I'm telling you, it's all about the gift bag. I want big, I want electronics, I want a car. I go to some charity event for some disease and hear stories about illnesses and all the good our money can do, and I think, `I just want that gift bag.'"

Sometimes, celebs hound personal publicists to hunt down a pair of cool shoes or the use of a private jet. But in many eases, celebs don't even have to ask to receive. Naturally, few celebs want to boast about their free loot, and fewer will go on the record. They don't want to be seen as freeloaders, even if they trust anyone bearing gifts.

Plenty to go around

Stars are often so overloaded that they share the wealth with relatives, friends, agents and employees--including publicists (who sometimes matched up their boss with the product in the first place).

Griffin is a big fan of "regifting," as she calls it. "I'm gonna give my niece a fancy jewelry box I got for free, I'm giving my sister a Tiffany pen. But I'm telling her I marched into Tiffany's and bought it myself."

Sometimes companies target the entourage directly. Playboy, for instance, has long sent clothing and bunny-branded goodies to stylists, managers and others close to celebs. The strategy paid off big when Jewel wore a Playboy T-shirt in concert; the resulting photos were widely distributed.

"Do you know what that was worth to the Playboy brand?" says one former Playboy exec. "That was huge. It made the brand safe for young women."

Five years ago, the Chicago-based Motorola was considered a reliable brand, but one whose image wasn't hip, sexy or cool.

That's changed dramatically, thanks to Motorola director of entertainment marketing David Pinsky, dubbed "the Santa to the stars." Based in a BevHills penthouse on Sunset Boulevard, Pinsky has been buddying up to Hollywood actors, agents, writers, directors, producers and stylists, handing them Motorola's latest gadgets, such as cell phones and pagers.

Pinsky just held his annual Motorola Christmas party, which was stuffed with Hollywood's elite, letting themselves be photographed cuddling up to their free goodies.

He estimates events like that have generated $10 million in free advertising, as celebs mention Motorola's products during interviews in print and on television.

"The value is to create a buzz for your brand and your products," Pinsky says. "We're very low-key about it. I never give something to someone and tell them, `You need to do this for us.' We want them to utilize our product and create awareness."

In the early days, studios routinely rewarded stars with gifts. When the old studio system waned, the stars' sense of entitlement only grew, as perks were used to lure talent to various projects.

In recent years, it's accelerated with the addition of Madison Avenue's marketing interests. Symbolic of this happy union are the giveaways that go under the low-key name of "gift bags" or "gift baskets."

The bags have ballooned from token giveaways into baskets brimming with products worth as much as $20,000. And the benefit to the companies has increased now that many media outlets do stories about the contents.

For instance:

* Last year's Oscar bag boasted $1,700 Tempur-Pedic mattresses; La-Z-Boy recliners; three-night stays (worth $3,000) at Mexican resort Esperanza; $1,500 Allsteel office chairs; $500 Hewlett-Packard digital cameras; $300 Sama sunglasses; $1,600 stainless steel Ebel watches; and $600 teeth whitening sessions at Brite Smile, among other items. They went to Oscar's 125 presenters and performers and ended up as part of dozens of Oscar stories.

* Golden Globe presenters received two first-class plane tickets, a $250 bottle stopper, a certificate to a day spa, his-and-hers watches worth $1,300 and Microsoft's Xbox vidgame system.

* The $15,000 bag for the Grammy Awards included a Black Berry two-way pager, DKNY jeans, a two-night stay at any Ian Schrager-owned hotel, a 13-inch Philips television, Casio digital camera watches and Lalique rings.

When Maurice LaCroix watches were part of the Emmy gift basket, the company was cited in 105 articles the first weekend after the event, says VP Steve Rasnick of product placement firm UPP Entertainment Marketing.

The gift bag business has spawned companies such as Backstage Creations, which runs "celebrity retreats" backstage at major awards shows. Celebs and the journalists who cover such shows cruise booths manned by participating companies for goodies.

"The retreats single-handedly put two of my clients on the map," says Lea Yardum of Perception PR.

One was Vege-Soy, whose soy-based candles were a hit at the People's Choice Awards. Yardum says the publicity and celeb endorsements from that show helped the company hit $1 million in sales in its second year.

And JenStone picked up "12 stories and a long list of celebrities" for its handmade belts after Backstage Creations included the then month-old company backstage at the Teen Choice Awards.

Backstage bazaar

At VH1's recent "Big in 2002" taping, Backstage Creations had a 20-foot-by-20-foot tent set up with a ring of tables where 11 companies showed off their wares. Comedian Wayne Brady and rockers Richie Sambora and Kid Rock were among those grazing through clothes from Michelle DeCourcy, Eisbar and Bella Dahl, Clava luggage, Crabtree & Evelyn skin-care items, Baliston casual shoes, Red Monkey Designs leather gear, weekend stays at the Hard Rock Casino and Virgin Atlantic flights from anywhere in the world to London.

The cost to the participating companies: $5,000 to $10,000, plus what they give away.

Last holiday, UPP provided some of its booze brands at Christmas parties hosted by Allison Janney and other celebs. Depending on the guest list at a given party, UPP will do the same this year.

UPP also maintains a warehouse at its Burbank headquarters stuffed with gear from dozens of corporate clients, including Ralston Purina pet foods, SuperSoaker water guns, Lexus cars, Nintendo videogames, Procter & Gamble household products and Russell Athletic clothing. Stars are invited to browse and pick out what they want, or UPP and its celeb-placement unit Hot-House will sponsor parties for small groups of targeted notables when a new product is launched.

Nike operates a warehouse in Culver City to which it invites celebs to pick out thousands of dollars worth of clothes, shoes and other gear.

"I have gone to that Nike warehouse and it's a dream come true," Griffin says. The only drawback: A Nike escort takes the celebs' sizes and won't let them take anything that isn't their size. In other words, the product placement applies only to stars, not spouses, relatives or entourage.

Which points up one of the heartaches of giveaways. Sometimes--not often, but sometimes--the company says no. But in many cases, the star doesn't care.

Some celebs, such as Jacqueline Onassis and Nancy Reagan, have reputations for leaving beauty parlors and restaurants without paying. Michael Jackson recently lost a lawsuit filed by Rodeo Drive jeweler David Orgell, which claimed the pop icon "borrowed" a $1.5 million diamond-studded watch for four months in order to decide whether he would buy it, before finally returning it damaged.

One more heartache for stars: Automakers have yet to begin handing away free cars. However, deep discounts are available.

Celebs routinely get to use cars, typically high-end or sporty models, for one or two weeks at a time, then get one-fourth of the sticker price shaved off if they want to buy.

Cadillac advisers say in one such program, one in eight celebs bought its $53,000 Escalade SUV after two-week trials. BMW routinely provides free weekly rentals of its $68,000 7-series sedan. Maserati is doing the same with its $85,000 roadster.

Timothy M. Gray contributed to this story.
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Author:Bloom, David; Graser, Marc
Date:Dec 16, 2002
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