The year in swag

Every year, film studios, music labels, and TV networks attempt to pitch their wares to critics and other entertainment writers by sending out crates of free stuff. Usually, these promotional items have questionable entertainment value, and they often wind up contributing to office clutter, when they aren't passed directly into the trash or sold on eBay. Feeling that the public should share in the experience, however secondarily, The Onion A.V. Club presents this roundup of highlights from our year of swag.

Item: I, Robot robot

Promoting: The DVD release of I, Robot

Description: When wound up, this old-fashioned toy makes a whirring noise as it ambles forward an inch or two before running out of kinetic energy.

Relevance to product promoted: The robot bears little resemblance to the highly advanced humanoid robots in the film, but it does at least follow Isaac Asimov's First Law Of Robotics: All attempts to command it to harm a human being failed. On the other hand, the robot pretty much ignores all commands, which breaks Asimov's Second Law, and its self-preservation instincts seem nonexistent, which violates the Third Law.

Item quality on a scale of 1 (instantly trashable) to 5 (cool even if it weren't free): 4
With only two points of articulation, the robot can only assume a limited number of poses. It moves in an unpredictable fashion more suggestive of an intoxicated sailor than a miracle of modern engineering. But the classic, space-age design makes it a fine addition to any toy-robot collection.

Persuasive power: Considerable. It provides a constant reminder that there is a movie about robots to be watched, while its grim expression drives home I, Robot's serious themes of humanity's occasionally uncomfortable relationship with the tools it creates.

Item: Ham

Promoting: Christmas With The Kranks

Description: This Hickory Honey ham—which comes packaged in a grim white tin and bundled with a video of the film's trailer—is a lot like the movie it promotes: unappetizing and likely to cause queasiness if consumed.

Relevance to product promoted: High. A Hickory Honey brand ham figures nearly as prominently in Christmas With The Kranks as desperate flailing, cancer, and schmaltzy sentimentality.

Item quality on a scale of 1 to 5: 1
This ham looks only slightly more savory than the roadkill found on most highways.

Persuasive power: Poor. This hideous pork product does nothing but evoke traumatic memories of the film's headache-inducing brand of sledgehammer slapstick. Never has pursuing a kosher lifestyle—or swearing off movies altogether—seemed more appealing.

Item: A rubber SpongeBob SquarePants snow-globe

Promoting: The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie

Description: Much like a normal snow-globe, this transparent ball contains water, floating particles, and a plastic diorama, in this case a rendition of SpongeBob SquarePants, who beams vacantly while propping up a plaque bearing the movie's title. However, instead of glass, the globe is made of soft, bouncy rubber.

Relevance to product promoted: Reasonable. While sticklers might point out that SpongeBob lives in a pineapple under the sea, not in a quivering, gelid ball full of glitter, the globe does adequately point out, "Hey, there's a SpongeBob SquarePants movie. And SpongeBob SquarePants is totally in it."

Item quality on a scale of 1 to 5: 3
The SpongeBob toy inside the globe is poorly made and cheaply painted. But the globe itself is irresistably squishy, and seems durable enough to survive the inevitable "Oh my God, this feels weird, touch it!" passing-around it's likely to get in the office.

Persuasive power: Difficult to determine. SpongeBob's refusal to make eye contact with anything outside of his globe—his painted eyes are fixed firmly downward, aimed neither at his sign nor at the beholder—suggests a certain evasive discomfort over the quality of his film. On the other hand, the globe certainly evokes the movie's disconcerting-but-fun gooeyness.

Item: A blue bathing suit and red cap

Promoting: The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

Description: This sporty red knit hat comes emblazoned with the Life Aquatic insignia, while the tight, skimpy blue bathing suit leaves little to the imagination. It's certainly lucky that entertainment writers are usually bronzed Adonises, rather than pasty, overweight, shabbily dressed loners.

Relevance to product promoted: High. These promo items faithfully recreate the unofficial uniform of the film's Team Zissou, complete with the updated triple-Z Zissou logo.

Item quality on a scale of 1 to 5: 4
This is high-quality merchandise, although it remains to be seen whether many people will have reason to wear a skimpy bathing suit and a winter hat at the same time.

Persuasive power: Strong. Writer-director Wes Anderson excels at tiny little details that stick in the mind, and this fetching set recreates two of the film's most indelible features.

Item: Bernie Mac & Cheez-Its

Promoting: The Bernie Mac Show

Description: Sent in a package that also included a variety pack of Kellogg's cereals themed after the Andy Richter sitcom Quintuplets (in such flavors as "Raisin' Quints" and "Corny Pops"), this is essentially a box of Cheez-It Twisters with the cast of The Bernie Mac Show on the packaging. Above the Fox logo and some text touting the show's airtime are the slogans "Family fun!" and "Bold crunch!" Presumably, the former refers to the show and the latter to the snack.

Relevance to product promoted: Minimal. It seems to exist only because of an association between the words "mac" and "cheese."

Item quality on a scale of 1 to 5: 3
No matter how funny the cast members of The Bernie Mac Show are, they don't really improve the taste of Cheez-It Twisters.

Persuasive power: On the other hand, there are far worse snacks than Cheez-Its, just as there are far worse shows than The Bernie Mac Show. A salty, cheesy snack might be just the thing to accompany Mac's edgy-enough-for-critics-but-fun-for-the-whole-family entertainment.

Item: A bobblehead of Bernie Mac in a Milwaukee Brewers uniform

Promoting: Mr. 3000

Description: Posed with his bat behind his back, bobblehead Bernie Mac—who had nearly as busy a year as a promo item as he did as an actor—wears a confident expression suggesting that, yes, he is capable of returning to the major leagues to secure the last three hits he needs to make up for a statistical error that prompted him to retire before reaching his 3,000-hit goal.

Relevance to product promoted: High. If Bernie Mac really did play for the Milwaukee Brewers, he might have inspired an item similar to this one.

Item quality on a scale of 1 to 5: 2
Mac is an appealing presence in films and on television, but far less entertaining in bobblehead form. Also, a warning sticker proclaims that Mac is a potential choking hazard, which makes him off-limits for fans aged 6 and under, regardless of his warm smile.

Persuasive power: Surprisingly strong. No matter what direction critics move the toy's head, Mac always seems to be saying, "Yes, yes, you did enjoy Mr. 3000."

Item: A set of five bobblehead dolls

Promoting: Anchorman: The Legend Of Ron Burgundy

Description: This full set of lovingly detailed figurines answers the eternal question "What would one-time Saturday Night Live cast member David Koechner look like in bobblehead form?" All these beloved characters stand on bases emblazoned with their names, and accessories abound, from Will Ferrell's dog sidekick to the container for Paul Rudd's Sex Panther cologne.

Relevance to product promoted: High. Not only do these figures commemorate all five of the film's main characters, but the mindless, vacant jiggling of their heads eerily captures the vaguely lobotomized cheerfulness of real-life news professionals.

Item quality on a scale of 1 to 5: 3
These figures benefit from an obsessive, Todd McFarlane-like attention to detail, although it should be noted that they're obscenely delicate: Most can't survive even a single cross-country journey, let alone withstand being thrown forcefully against a wall in a drunken rage. This raises the frightening specter of headless, footless Anchorman totems lingering around long after the film has left theaters.

Persuasive power: High. These highly collectible figures vividly capture the goofy, light-hearted spirit of one of the year's most delightful comedies.

Item: "Absinthe"

Promoting: EuroTrip

Description: The bottle claims to contain absinthe, but a trip to The Onion A.V Club's diagnostic laboratory reveals it to be merely meek old mineral water, which of course means that the marketing gurus at Dreamworks are nothing but a bunch of filthy liars. At long last, Dreamworks, have you no shame?

Relevance to product promoted: In EuroTrip, a gang of Europe-visiting ne'er-do-wells imbibe absinthe and experience vivid hallucinations. Also, Michelle Trachtenberg makes out with her brother, which is just the kind of mood-altered debauchery that promo items invariably wish to evoke.

Item quality on a scale of 1 to 5: 1
This garden-variety water won't inspire even mild hallucinations.

Persuasive power: Nonexistent. Dreamworks usually spares no expense in giving entertainment writers the kind of elaborate "promotional item" bribes they desperately require in order to write completely objective reviews of the studio's films. (For Old School, for example, it sent writers Old School-style George Foreman grills.) But by cynically mislabeling water as absinthe, it has instantly undone all the good will it earned through years of elaborate gifts. On the plus side, however, this mineral water isn't likely to lead to lowered inhibitions and/or totally hilarious incest.

Item: A faux-bearskin envelope

Promoting: The DVD release of Brother Bear

Description: Manufactured to contain a press release touting the Brother Bear DVD, and sealed with a metal clip, the furry envelope suggests what an office-supply store might stock in an alternate universe that never developed paper.

Relevance to product promoted: High. Bears are an excellent source of fur for those who can still sleep at night knowing that their comfort means the death of such majestic creatures.

Item quality on a scale of 1 to 5: 1
Though relatively sturdy, the synthetic bearskin is unpleasant to touch and too thick to close easily once opened.

Persuasive power: Poor. If anything, it suggests that Disney was so dissatisfied with the cast of Brother Bear that it had them skinned in a desperate attempt to get its money's worth.

Item: A slime-filled cylindrical hourglass

Promoting: The straight-to-DVD release Species III

Description: This tube full of gloppy, toxic-looking, vividly yellow-green goop is divided into two chambers. When the hourglass is inverted, the goop drips slowly from one chamber to the other.

Relevance to product promoted: Significant. Species III does in fact center on a lot of unnatural-looking oozy stuff, albeit more often in cocoon, alien, and eviscerated-body form than in hourglass form.

Item quality on a scale of 1 to 5: 4
The Species III hourglass is both durable in design and hypnotic in content. It combines the childish fascination of gross toys with an adult sensibility that lets sober critics keep their hands clean.

Persuasive power: Excellent. A bottle of creepy flowing slime perfectly captures one of the two main draws of the Species series. And since the other main draw—naked breasts—wouldn't fit well in a hand-sized tube, this is possibly the best possible toy-based ad for the movie. (Then again, no matter how well-promoted the film is, it is still Species III.)

Item: A script

Promoting: Shrek 2

Description: This script for Shrek 2 is filled with color illustrations from the least necessary money-guzzling blockbuster sequel this side of Men In Black II.

Relevance to product promoted: Extremely high. It's like they totally went and based the entire movie off this promo item.

Item quality on a scale of 1 to 5: 4
Aspiring actors will undoubtedly want to memorize all of Shrek's unforgettable monologues for audition purposes, while folks who love Shrek but hate computer animation can act out the entire film with their friends and family.

Persuasive power: Poor. This script has been sent to critics in an attempt to garner award nominations, but its effectiveness is somewhat diminished by the fact that it, like Shrek 2 itself, isn't very good.

Photos by Dan Warkenthien

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