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#165 Swag Bags

August 20, 2012

submitted by Ricky

Recently, President Obama issued an executive order telling agencies to stop producing stuff like coffee mugs to advertise federal programs.  But even before that ruling, the Swag Bag was not what it used to be.

A few years ago EAWs were mostly concerned with doing stuff.  With the advent of branding rules, EAWs realized that telling people about what they were doing was more important than actually doing it.  The golden age of EAW Swag Bags had begun.

Which to wear today?

In times past, the main reason to go to a capacity building conference was the “Swag Bag” that contained all sorts of stuff the EAW could use to build field cred.  The coffee mug (the more obscure the better) sitting on the desk or offered to a guest, the T shirt (or baseball cap) from that life saving conference on the edge of some disaster zone, bound diaries with a cool logo (and, on the back pages, an atlas with the newest country that needs EAWs – unless the diary came from Serbia, where Kosovo would NOT be in the atlas), pens, branded USB drives (filled with feasibility studies that were immediately erased), calendars with great photos of local costumes, a bottle of local wine (in non-Islamic countries at non USAID sponsored events) local handicrafts made by empowered single mother amputees, the Thermos mug designed to sit on the center console of the Land Cruiser (which was actually useful) and of course the branded lanyard…it was all in the “Swag Bag.”  The bag itself was either a high quality canvas tote or a faux leather briefcase with a graphic designed to start a conversation that gave the EAW an excuse to pull out his or her passport and point to the visa that made arriving to the conference possible.

The savvy EAW filled his or her canvas swag bag with feasibility studies, working group reports and capacity building briefs and lined them up, logos out, on the shelf behind his or her desk in place of the hard to get file cabinet. Because sure, there will be a certificate awarded for attending a seminar, but framing it and putting it on the wall?  Not cool — no gravitas.  There’s nothing like an exotic lanyard draped over the computer monitor to show a newbie this EAW has been around.  Men at the home office used to wear ties.  Since 9/11, in place of a tie, they have credentials hanging from lanyards, a photo card with an RFI chip to wave in front of a box with blinking LEDs to unlock doors.  During home office visits that credential hanging from a lanyard branded by a conference promoting Coptic — Moslem unity in Egypt (great graphic) gives instant field cred.

EAWs reminisce about that golden age of swag. “Remember when that mobile phone provider gave us SIM cards with credit so we could make local calls?” (and, of course, buy scratch cards to replenish the phone – support the local economy!)  “Dude, at this one conference, I got a swag bag with an iPod shuffle! It was full of vendor commercials but I deleted them and filled that puppy up with classic rock.”  “What? Are you kidding? We once got actual ipods. That’s right, one ipod per swag bag.” Switching up the swag bag contents is the kind of innovative branding opportunity thinking that makes the higher ups in the EAW’s own organization green with envy.

EAWs of course all complained about these excesses (This is not the private sectorThat money should be spent doing stuff!) But secretly who doesn’t want a free iPod.

Alas, nowadays swag bags aren’t what they used to be (except in the Gulf).  Now the swag often comes in a recycled paper shopping bag with the conference logo.  Set it down on a table damp from beer mug rings, and the bottom gets soggy.  Lift the bag and all the swag falls out.  The bag rattles at any attempt to fish out that pen made from recycled cardboard, disturbing everyone.  Lanyards are generic, if they are available at all.  T shirts are so hard to come by that they will soon be on the list of ironic hipster relics from the pre-2010’s. No mugs, thank you Mr. President.  In December when the bound diaries should be coming out, all the EAW will see are credit card sized calendars. Cigarette lighters are still an option, but  airport security takes them away.  An actual iPod? Never again.

Nowadays there are very few conference tchotchkes that can bring the EAW field cred.  It’s indeed a sorry state. But EAWs won’t openly complain, except after a few drinks in the expat bar. Because really, that money should be spent doing stuff, right?

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