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All The Free Swag At SXSW Probably Isn't Accomplishing Much

Mose Buchele

Three free pairs of sunglasses, one Twinkie, one cupcake, lots of Cracker Jacks, a drink ticket, a sticker of a banana, and one invitation to a BBQ and concert, courtesy of the government of Canada.  

All that was to be had just by walking five blocks of Sixth Street during South by Southwest 2014.

It's a lot of stuff given out by companies and others trying to help their "brand," and much of it has no influence at all. 

“It's kind of embarrassing," says Jay Russell, executive creative director at GSD&M, an Austin-based ad agency. "I think it’s doing some of these big brands a disservice. Because it clearly shows they just don’t get it.” 

Russell says most companies participate in festival freebies because it's just expected internally. 

"It’s like, 'We’ve got this marketing money, let’s get the millennials and we’ll check this box, and we’ll have this South By presence,'" he says ."'And look at these numbers! We gave away 5,000 pairs of sunglasses and at the end of the year someone might get a bonus for it."

"It doesn’t work," he adds.

Russell says people aren’t going to like a company  because it gives them a beer koozie. And the recent trend of  companies mixing their give-away campaigns with new media outreach can be even more counter-productive. 

"I was at a concert the other night, and [a backpack company] was like 'Hashtag us and we'll give you free beer.' And the hashtags were actually making fun of the brand," he says. "Then the companies would go back and comment, like 'Thanks!' They didn't even see the sarcasm dripping in the tweets that were going out!"

The same goes if the giveaways are even more extravagant. Case in point: Ayla Shlosser. She’ll be leaving with more than a pair of free sunglasses: she entered a drawing put on by the state of Texas and won a MacBook Air computer. But she says that hasn't really changed her impressions of Texas one way or another. 

"I think it works on getting people in the door initially," she says. But then, as with any sort of brand loyalty, "once people are in the door, you're actually going to have to convince them to stay," she says.

The computer she won came with a decal that reads 'Texas, Wide Open for Business." She says the first thing she did when she claimed her prize was try to remove the sticker.

Mose Buchele focuses on energy and environmental reporting at KUT. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @mosebuchele.