As the means of producing music, books, and even films become cheaper and more accessible every year, the marketplace is increasingly crowded with culture, and the big companies are fighting to stay at the top of the heap. Fortunately for us, they often do this by taking advantage of their deep pockets and trying to bribe us, the critical community, with free stuff, branded in clever or not-so-clever ways to remind us of upcoming releases. No matter how bad the economy gets, we here at The A.V. Club know we’ll be doing just fine, since we’re up to our hips in clothing, food, and other assorted items provided by studios and publishers. No living in squalor for us: We’re surrounded by luxuries most people in these economically cautious times wouldn’t think to purchase for themselves. Here’s our annual look at how companies are successfully buying our love with promo items.
Item: Tiny boots
Promoting: DreamWorks’ Shrek spin-off Puss In Boots, which seems to imply that these otherwise non-functioning boots, which are too narrow for even the tiniest human feet, are intended for a cat.
Relevance: They’re cat-sized boots promoting a movie about a cat who wears boots. That’s pretty damn relevant. How useful they are is another question entirely.
Item quality, from 1 (instantly trashable) to 5 (worth keeping unironically): 4. The boots are made of actual leather with suede-like lining, though very little of it—they’re quite tiny—and the sole and heel are wooden. However, the 1-inch heel is proportionally way too high for all but the sluttiest of cats.
Why it’s a luxury: While most people these days can’t even afford shoes for their pets, our feline companions are well-shod in boots that are actually made from another animal.
Item: A pink mesh cosmetics bag containing four shades of nail polish (light pink, black, royal blue, and a coral-y red) and a purple emery board with a mirror on the back
Promoting: I Hate My Teenage Daughter, one of the most universally reviled new shows on the fall TV schedule.
Relevance: Teenage girls love nail polish, right? Plus, the different shades have groan-worthy names inspired by the show’s characters: “Sophie-isticated Sable,” “Nikki’s Austin-tatious Red,” “Mackenzie’s Confident In Cobalt,” and perhaps most egregiously, “I’ll Do Annie-thing To Be Popular Pink.” And the emery board depicts the four leads’ faces on the abrasive side, so you can literally claw their faces while you do your nails. What’s more teenage-girl-y than that?
Item quality: 5. The polish covers well in two coats—it’s unclear what brand it is, unless Fox is manufacturing nail polish in addition to horrible new sitcoms these days—and the mirror on the back of the emery board is a nice touch.
Why it’s a luxury: Since nail-polish sales go up as the economy gets worse, the fact that we don’t have to pay to keep our talons properly lacquered proves we are recession-proof. It’s science.
Item: Printed toilet paper
Promoting: The DVD release of Jackass 3D.
Relevance: Considering the third Jackass film contains one stunt featuring a flying, shit-filled Porta-Potty and another featuring someone shitting himself, the association is pretty obvious. And if it’s not, the text on each square that reads “happens” should help you fill in the blank. Then again, just because the Jackass guys are frequently shit-adjacent doesn’t mean they’re the best ambassadors for the product.
Item quality: 2. At only two-ply and with no quilting, this is college-dorm-grade TP at best. Luckily, college dorms are the very place Jackass-branded TP would go over big.
Why it’s a luxury: Some people paid to see Jackass 3D; we get to wipe our asses with it.
Item: A USB back-massager and a Jenga-like wooden-block game
Promoting: The ABC comedy series Happy Endings.
Relevance: A personal massager is kind of like a vibrator; we assume the relevance lies in the double-entendre name of the show. We aren’t sure about the game; maybe the characters play it at some point? Maybe it’s a happy ending when somebody wins?
Item quality: 4. The game is pretty basic, just a bunch of wooden blocks in a thin wooden box. The decals that mark this as a Happy Ending game, with pictures and short descriptions of the characters, are cheap and peeling off the box. The massager is serious business, though—it vibrates strongly enough to make the hand holding it go numb, or to loosen up even the tensest back muscles, which we’re sure is all it was meant to be used on.
Why it’s a luxury: Just ask Keith Phipps, who began demanding this item the second it turned up, and gleefully disappeared into his office with it as soon as we photographed it for this feature. We assume he’d be sprawled half-conscious across his desk right now, luxuriously relaxed and massaged, if the USB cord hadn’t gone missing somewhere along the line.
Item: Stuffed Sharktopus
Promoting: The DVD release of the SyFy original movie Sharktopus, about a giant shark-octopus crossbreed running amuck.
Relevance: The movie is called Sharktopus. It features a sharktopus. This is a stuffed Sharktopus.
Item quality: 5. This was the rare promo item that immediately made half the office get all grabby-handed. It’s fuzzy and pleasantly cuddly—especially its floppity, baby-soft tentacles—and really cute, particularly given its angry-eyebrows glower and unthreatening felt teeth.
Why it’s a luxury: Most people have to make do with the actual film, which is neither cuddly nor pettable. Plush sharktopi aren’t even commercially available, so we get to luxuriate in furry softness and be specialty-item-owning elitists all at the same time.
Item: “The Quirk 2010 mix-tape” (which arrived in late 2010, after our annual swag piece was written)
Promoting: A good year for Quirk Books, home of the Pride And Prejudice And Zombies series, the upcoming Taft 2012 by A.V. Club contributor Jason Heller, and much more.
Relevance: Negligible. The liner notes explain that each song on this collection was chosen by a Quirk staffer, and while a few of them make halfhearted attempts to tie their choices in with Quirk content, in most cases, they picked the songs because they really like them.
Item quality: 4. The idea of a publisher sending out a mix-tape is kind of cute, and it’s an impressive personal touch to have so much of the staff involved with curating it. What’s even more impressive is that the mix comes on a USB flash drive in the shape of a cassette tape, complete with a label and cassette-box liner that look like the kinda-cute, kinda-amateur work someone would actually create for a mix-tape for a friend.
Why it’s a luxury: The hoi polloi have to pick their music for themselves, and might even have to pay for it. We have people just handing us free music, specially curated with only the finest bits of data. Also, given that this is a mix-tape, Quirk’s staff probably has a secret crush on us. (Or not so secret: The label says “We [heart] U soooo much!”) Romantic entanglements in this bitter, cynical age are definitely a luxury.
Item: A Chinese New Year dinner set, with bowls, bamboo placemats, fancy chopsticks, plastic champagne flutes, noisemakers, and party hats for four, plus a bamboo dumpling steamer, all in a gigantic Chinese-food box
Promoting: The theatrical release of Kung Fu Panda 2
Relevance: The series’ panda protagonist loves to eat, particularly dumplings. The films take place in China. China celebrates Chinese New Year. It’s maybe a stretch, but it’s hard to say no to a party kit, and the party it implies.
Item quality: 5. This is an awful lot of party kit, suitable for a reasonably nice dinner for four. It’s far more practical than most promo items, given that these are sales-grade objects rather than cheap plastic knockoffs. If only they didn’t have Kung Fu Panda 2 emblazoned on them.
Why it’s a luxury: No paper plates and tacky disposable chopsticks for us. We’ll be eating our Chinese food the fancy way from now on. Though probably not while watching the Kung Fu Panda films. Chinese food is a mess to smuggle into a theater.
Item: A metal drinking flask in a wooden box
Promoting: The DVD release of the Coen brothers’ True Grit.
Relevance: Jeff Bridges’ True Grit character, Rooster Cogburn, is a notorious boozehound who would doubtless appreciate a flask this fine, either because it would help him take more whiskey out on his bounty-hunting runs, or because it’s such a high-quality item that he could pawn it in order to pay for another bottle of the cheap stuff.
Item quality: 4. Would have been a 5 if it had actually arrived filled with rotgut, but you can’t have everything. As is, it’s a decent flask.
Why it’s a luxury: Now we can sneak booze into movie theaters during our many, many excursions to films that aren’t as entertaining while sober as True Grit is.
Item: A Shark Week party kit
Promoting: Shark Week on The Discovery Channel.
Relevance: Direct and obvious, though creatively tangential. The idea is that recipients will use their party kit to throw an awesome sharkish party while watching 2011’s Shark Week programming.
Item quality: 4. For a cheap party kit, this is impressively diverse: There’s a shark bottle opener, a shark-shaped cookie-cutter, Shark Week logo balloons and a T-shirt, coasters and napkins, and even a number of bingo cards where the squares are all Shark Week staples like “dorsal fin above water,” “ominous music,” “shark bumps camera,” and “chum.” And it all comes in a handsome Shark Week backpack, so it’s a portable party, not to be confused with a portable potty.
Why it’s a luxury: For most, Shark Week is a sad and lonely affair. For us, it’s a classy social gathering and excuse for a themed bingo game.
Item: “NZT pills” and a key-shaped flash drive marked “unlock your potential”
Promoting: The DVD release of Limitless.
Relevance: In the film, slacker incompetent Bradley Cooper is handed a sample of a pill that gives him extraordinary mental clarity and focus, enabling him to put his life in order, write a terrific novel, impress everyone who meets him, and kick off a thriller plot that has him being hunted by known and unknown murderous forces. This package purports to be another sample of the same drug.
Item quality: 3. This package is mostly impressive for its detail and verisimilitude—it comes with an enthusiastic press release about the benefits of NZT, plus a small-print list of horrific potential side effects. And the key drive is a nice touch. It isn’t a desk-enhancing keeper, but it’s an impressively straight-faced, creative, attention-grabbing package that leads to an equally straight-faced promo website: theclearpill.com. Also, we tried one of the pills, and while we aren’t brilliant yet, they are pleasantly minty. Our lives may not be enhanced, but our breath is.
Why it’s a luxury: Is your breath pleasantly minty right now? Probably not.
Item: A crapload of T-shirts
Promoting: Various games, shows, and films, including Fringe (“Save Peter”), Shark Week on the Discovery Channel (“Bite Me”), 127 Hours (“I Kept My Eyes Open For 127 Hours”), Dragon Quest: Realms Of Revelation (“Be My Valenslime”), Bones (“This should be one mother of a season”), Red Dead Redemption (“Red Dead Redemption”—way to get creative there, guys), and more.
Relevance: Generally none, except in the slogans. Though the cream of the crop is a personalized Glee tie-in football jersey, which casts our own Keith Phipps as one of the show’s bullying, menacing jocks: He even gets his own number, and his name on the back of his William McKinley High School jersey. As if he needed encouragement to huck us into Dumpsters and throw slushies in our faces every morning.
Item quality: Varies. The “Save Peter” shirt is so lightweight it could double as a tissue. The long-sleeved Arthur Christmas T-shirt is heftier and better designed, with a pattern reminiscent of a horrible, gaudy Christmas sweater. The 127 Hours T-shirt is funny and creepy, with eyeballs on the back to further spell out the theme, but its hideous dried-ketchup-on-mustard color scheme renders it unwearable. The Legend Of Zelda: Ocarina Of Time 3D shirt, with its wraparound airbrush-style painting of Link boldly riding forth on his horse Epona, seems impressively tailored to 12-year-old gamer girls. But the Glee shirt wins out because someone took the time to personalize it for the recipient.
Why it’s a luxury: As long as we’re willing to serve as free living billboards, we can now go an extra two weeks without doing any laundry.
Item: Folding puzzle and mirror reading “MeetYourOtherYou.com”
Promoting: The theatrical release of the film Another Earth.
Relevance: In Mike Cahill’s sweetly melancholy writing and directing debut, a mirror Earth appearing in the solar system invites people living on our planet to contemplate the lives of their duplicates on the other planet, and wonder whether those people made the same terrible mistakes they did, and wound up in the same painful places. The mirror invites recipients to imagine what an alternate version of themselves might have accomplished, or failed to accomplish. The puzzlebox, which folds and unfolds to reveal different scenes and messages, mimics an item seen briefly in the movie itself.
Item quality: 2. The mirror is basically a piece of shiny laminate on a cardboard postcard. It works fine—mirrors are pretty low-tech—but it’s hardly an antique silverplate mirror. The puzzlebox is decently well-made, though it’s also a lightweight cardboard contraption.
Why it’s a luxury: Most people these days don’t have the time to sit around quietly regarding themselves and engaging in philosophical meanderings about the meaning of their lives and the roads not taken. Is anyone even bothering to buy mirrors anymore? Well, we don’t have to—we got a free one. Actually, we’re going to dispense with the philosophy and just sit around contemplating how great we look in that giant collection of free promo T-shirts.
Item: Various boxes of fancy chocolates
Promoting: NBC’s holiday-season lineup, the SyFy series Being Human, the 60th anniversary of I Love Lucy.
Relevance: Secretly, all promo items are basically just bribes. The NBC lineup in particular doesn’t have anything to do with chocolate; we’re just being reminded that NBC exists, through delicious calories. Maybe the SyFy show is more chocolate-based, but we doubt it; the tie-in there seems to be more conceptual, as the chocolate bars they sent are labeled “hunger” and “desire,” words that apply equally to the show’s key themes and to recipients’ approach to chocolate. (The third bar in the box is missing; apparently it said “Lust.” It’s probably no coincidence that the recipient ate that one first.) I Love Lucy had that one episode where Lucy and Ethel work in the chocolate factory—referenced on the box, both with a screenshot and the episode title—so the tie-in is clear enough, though the lack of a quick-moving conveyor belt inside the box itself means we wound up with more time to eat these candies than Lucy did.
Item quality: 4. None of these are fancy hand-dipped truffles or anything, but they’re perfectly delicious chocolate, as the diminished condition of the promo items attests.
Why it’s a luxury: Do we also have to explain why candlelit bubble baths and expensive wines are considered luxuries? Sheesh.
Item: Beat-up ol’ huntin’ cap
Promoting: Only In America With Larry The Cable Guy.
Relevance: Larry The Cable Guy is constantly on the move in his History Channel series, so it makes sense that his signature item of clothing would get beat up along the way. The guy did a lot in his first year. Just look at episode titles like “Larry Deep Fries Everything” and “Larry Cuts The Cheese.” It’s difficult to tell if this is supposed to be a camo hat that has become filthy with hard work, or it’s some sort of two-tone jobby. (The latter seems unlikely—too fancy-pants for a guy like Larry.)
Item quality: 5. As far as pre-distressed baseball caps go, this appears to be of the highest craftsmanship. The fake wear-and-tear should blend seamlessly with any real wear-and-tear you might encounter, and the front logo is a tasteful red and black.
Why it’s a luxury: It’s every cable guy’s dream to give up the daily grind and move into a job on the screen, instead of connected to the screen’s wires. Then and only then could he afford a cap of such distinction—the kind of hat that will open doors anywhere below the Mason-Dixon Line.
Item: Printed iPad sleeve containing a cardboard iPad
Promoting: One of the other most universally reviled new shows on the fall TV schedule, Fox’s animated sitcom Allen Gregory, co-created by and starring Jonah Hill.
Relevance: The show’s titular protagonist is described as the most pretentious 7-year-old of all time, so if you think iPads are pretentious, it’s fairly relevant—though how pretentious can you be if your fancy electronics are made of cardboard? The case, which mimics a Louis Vuitton logo, replacing the iconic “LV” with “AG,” fits the theme a little better—though, again, nothing says “poseur” quite like a cheap Vuitton knock-off.
Item quality: 1 for the iPad—it’s cardboard, and even worse, it seems to only contain Allen Gregory-related apps. 2 for the case, which is made of cheap, thin foam-like material that might be suitable for protecting cardboard electronic toys, but probably not the real deal.
Why it’s a luxury: Most people can’t even afford iPads, much less Louis Vuitton cases for them, and here we have cardboard decoys to keep all you riff-raff from trying to steal our real iPads.
Item: Fuzzy handcuffs
Promoting: The DVD release of the 2009 “women in prison film” Sugar Boxx.
Relevance: Let’s turn to the film’s synopsis for some clues, shall we? “Sugar State Women’s Prison. An Everglades hellhole where innocent girls are forced to slave in the swamps by day then turn tricks for the warden by night. A prison camp where corruption, brutality, and sexual abuse are all part of the daily routine.” Prison, check; sex, check; poor taste, double-check!
Item quality: 2. The pink-and-black fuzzy padding is cheap-stuffed-animal-grade plush, and doesn’t even cover the full cuff, leaving thin, sharp exposed metal right around the area where cuff meets wrist. Plus, while the cuffs came with tiny keys, they’re actually meant to be unlocked via an easily reached trigger latch. And the links connecting the individual cuffs are already coming apart, which is probably a good thing if fuzzy-handcuff-aided brutality and sexual abuse is part of your daily routine.
Why it’s a luxury: Most people who wish to obtain a pair of handcuffs for adult playtime have to be discreet about shelling out cash for kinky accessories, whereas we get not one but two free pairs, along with the luxury of being able to scoff, “Those? Just some silly promotional items I got at work,” should anyone accidentally discover them.
Item: New Mexico Sage & Cedar Smudge Stick
Promoting: Paranormal Activity 2 on Blu-ray and DVD.
Relevance: Not immediately apparent. Usually when companies send us promotional items, they’re packaged to really pimp the product. In this case, we’ve got a packet of sage and cedar with the original packaging from an herb company in New Mexico. It only became clear when we realized it was sitting on a press release for PA2, and accompanied by instructions on how “TO WARD OFF NEGATIVE SPRITS.” Still, kinda silly. They could’ve tried harder.
Item quality: 3. In our vast experience with smudge sticks (have you guys tried Smudge Stick Plus, down on Third Street?), we’ve seen better and we’ve seen worse. The bundle was packed pretty tight, but plenty of sage had found its way to the bottom of the bag (and the surface of our desks)—and that’s wasted sage. Still, it should do the trick.
Why it’s a luxury: Most people are so busy trying to make ends meet that they don’t have time to consider whether ghosts even exist. They’re probably all thinking, “Who gives a fuck about ghosts when I can’t afford to get my car fixed?” We not only have plenty of time to give serious consideration to made-up shit, we can also afford a bunch of dried weeds to try and make made-up shit disappear.
Item: Metal letter-opener with wolf’s head
Promoting: Red Riding Hood.
Relevance: There probably isn’t any significant letter-opening going on in Catherine Hardwicke’s supernatural-romance film version of the Little Red Riding Hood story, but only the tweens who went to see it could tell you for sure. This letter-opener looks a bit threatening—it’s meant to suggest a silver werewolf-fighting knife—but like most letter openers, it’s lightweight and duller than a butter knife. It isn’t exactly going open up an attacking werewolf as if he were a flimsy envelope.
Item quality: 4. All that said, as an actual letter-opener, this item has solidity and craftsmanship. It could tear the shit out of your phone bill if so desired.
Why it’s a luxury: The proletariat is doomed to opening eviction notices and past-due medical bills with their frostbitten fingers. Not us. We can slice right through paper or even manila document envelopes in order to get to our stock certificates and enormous dividend checks quickly. Plus it comes in a nice velvet-lined box.
Item: Office items in a plastic case (pens, mini staplers, scissors)
Promoting: Breaking In.
Relevance: In all honesty, we’d never heard of Breaking In, the half-hour Fox comedy that debuted and then was quickly canceled in 2011 before being almost-as-quickly revived. A quick glance at the Internet suggests that it’s a wacky half-hour sitcom about a security firm that tries to break into impenetrable buildings in order to expose their weaknesses. A quick viewing of the trailer makes it clear that we’d never watch this show, but also that it’s sort of set in an office. So a little plastic case filled with tiny staplers, tiny tape, tiny scissors, and some regular-sized pens perhaps makes some sense. Or not. Seriously, this shit is tiny.
Item quality: 2. Why would you want a one-hole punch about the size of a cockroach? Why would you need a tape dispenser that requires a refill after every use? Why would you want a wacky comedy starring Christian Slater?
Why it’s a luxury: Nothing says “expensive” like clear plastic. It may be cheap and useless, but the stuff in this container looks like it might find a good home on the desk of some rich asshole who’s trying to look cool. And if luxury is about anything but rich assholes trying to look cool, then we don’t know luxury.
Item: Computer and keyboard cleaning kit
Promoting: True Grime: Crime Scene Clean Up.
Relevance: This Investigation Discovery show follows a business that charges people for coming to their homes and workplaces to remove all traces of grisly crime scenes. (Yes, like in the 2008 movie Sunshine Cleaning, or 1996’s Quentin Tarantino tie-in Curdled.) Now, assuming most of those crime scenes involved computer screens and keyboards dripping with blood, this little kit—a couple of ounces of screen cleaner, a BuzzBrush, and a piece of fabric—is totally relevant. If not, not so much. (What, they couldn’t spring for some rubber gloves instead?)
Item quality: 4. The BuzzBrush is a cute little two-in-one item that’ll get crumbs out of your keyboard and smudges off your screen. And it never hurts to have a bit of spritz around to clean your glasses or iPhone.
Why it’s a luxury: Do you own computers that are worth enough to bother keeping clean? We do.
Item: Glass beer stein
Promoting: IFC’s Whisker Wars.
Relevance: The mug features both the name of the show and a beard outline on it, meaning when held at the right angle, the drinker’s reflection could presumably appear to have a beard. Also, as Whisker Wars is a show about competitive beard-growing contests held mainly in bars, it’s alcoholically relevant.
Item quality: 4. It’s a nice-quality glass mug with good density and weight. Whether drinkers watched the show or not, they could easily enjoy a frosty beverage from this vessel.
Why it’s a luxury: Some poor people don’t have glasses to drink beer from. Instead, they’re forced to drink it from other receptacles, like cans and bottles, or off ping-pong balls, or straight from keg-taps while hanging upside down.
Item: Musical jewelry box with a picture of Natalie Portman on the top
Promoting: Black Swan’s DVD release and run-up to 2011’s awards season.
Relevance: When opened, the box plays “Le Lac Des Cygnes, Op. 20,” better known as “Swan Lake.” The image on the top of the box is Portman in full black-swan face-paint. Short of sending out a tutu and a hand covered in feathers, the promotional company couldn’t have done much more to remind gift-receivers that Black Swan exists.
Item quality: 3. It’s a nice-looking box, but the mirror inside ours immediately fell out–and not because of some intentional “broken mirror” movie tie-in, but because it was poorly glued in. It’s also fairly small, so it wouldn’t hold much jewelry, let alone a tiara like Portman is wearing on the box top.
Why it’s a luxury: Anyone who would own this box presumably has jewelry to put in it, which is absolutely luxurious. Add in the tinkling sounds of canned classical music, and it’s clear that this box is meant only for total ballers like us.
Item: Cartoon Network-branded fleece hat with ears
Promoting: The Cartoon Network show Adventure Time.
Relevance: The human protagonist of Adventure Time wears this exact hat, though he may be inspired by the culture at large: Animal-themed hats are a current fashion trend among young adults, particularly the anime set that’s likely to watch much of Cartoon Network’s programming.
Item quality: 2. On a cold day in the office, it kept our heads warm, but aside from the ears, the hat doesn’t have much personality. It’s also white, which would make it hard to keep clean.
Why it’s a luxury: It gets pretty cold in winter around our Chicago HQ, so it’s nice to have a spare hat for those late-afternoon coffee (or whiskey) runs.
Item: Bob’s Burgers condiments set
Promoting: The première of Fox animated comedy Bob’s Burgers.
Relevance: Bob’s Burgers follows the life of a man named Bob who, with his wife and three strange children, runs a struggling burger restaurant. There are plenty of hijinks, often with hilarious results, including an off-color daily special posted by youngest daughter Louise. (Sample: “The Child Molester.”) Plenty of those hijinks also involve the use of condiments, occasionally as weapons. This condiment set is exactly the type you’d see at a burger joint like Bob’s, complete with plastic squeeze bottle, perfect for precision delivery of mustard or ketchup to bun.
Item quality: 4. Fox had the sense to use Heinz mustard and ketchup rather than a generic brand. The condiments’ shelf-life also means there was no rush to use them before the quality became questionable.
Why it’s a luxury: Have you seen the price of ketchup these days?
Item: The King’s Speech teacup and saucer tea sampler
Promoting: The DVD release of the Oscar-winning film The King’s Speech.
Relevance: Besides the fact that British people drink tea and the king is British? Tea time, a well-known, cherished tradition across Britain, figures heavily in a pair of the film’s scenes. When speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) meets potential patient King George VI (Colin Firth) for the first time over tea, he casually, scandalously calls the king by his nickname, “Bertie.” Later in the film, Logue finds the Queen of England (Helena Bonham Carter) at his dining room table, helping herself to a cup of tea.
Item quality: 4. In spite of their diminutive size, the teacup and saucer seem pretty sturdy. (In other words, they didn’t immediately break every time we treated them negligently by tossing them into our various swag storage bins.) As to the tea, we never opened the pack, but if it’s fit for a king, it couldn’t be that bad, right?
Why it’s a luxury: In the age of plastic and Styrofoam cups, it’s nice to have a high-quality, reusable (though, again, tiny) vessel for beverages. And it’s earth-friendly to boot, just as the king would have wanted.
Item: Wooden recipe box
Promoting: Various Showtime programs.
Relevance: Questionable. Showtime, the last we checked, is not a cooking network, nor does cooking play a central role in any of its shows. Nor, for that matter, are any of its stars well known for their culinary skills. And yet here’s a recipe box containing cards of recipes from the stars of Dexter, Weeds, and other Showtime favorites. None of them look that appealing, in part because the promotional wing of Showtime opted for pictures of the stars rather than the food. So we get a handsome shot of Nurse Jackie’s Paul Schulze next to the ingredients for something called “Addictive Black Bottom Cups.” What are they? Who’s to say? Want to try James Remar’s “Guilt-Free Eggs & Oats”? Of course you don’t. That sounds terrible.
Item quality: Recipes: 2. Box: 4. All jokes about “Emmy Rossum’s Shameless Sweet Potato Pie” aside, nothing here looks that appealing. (At least Mary-Louise Parker knowingly half-asses it by providing a “recipe” for microwaved Peeps.) But the box… The box is to die for. So smooth. So well-constructed. And are those notes of cedar we detect? Ahh…
Why it’s a luxury: These days, it’s a luxury to have anything. To have a box to put anything in? That’s living the high life, friend.
Item: Shoulder bags
Promoting: Falling Skies and Terra Nova.
Relevance: High. It’s no secret we live in troubled times. Are they as troubled as the post-alien-invasion world of Falling Skies, or the strange, alterna-pre-history land of the lost of Terra Nova? Not yet. But you never know when you’re going to need to grab your valuables and flee, flee, flee. And that’s where these no-nonsense shoulder bags come in.
Item quality: 4. We tugged hard on both these suckers, and didn’t hear a stitch give. The Terra Nova model has a slight edge on the Falling Skies bag, if only because it packs a lot more storage space into only a slightly larger bag. On the other hand, stick something heavy into the smaller bag, and you’ve got yourself a weapon, perfect for smacking aliens or dinosaurs. Whap! Take that, evil beings who keep threatening Noah Wyle’s family.
Why it’s a luxury: They aren’t. They’re necessities. Best have a sack packed at all times. Because you just never know…
Item: Electronic screaming push-button
Promoting: Scream 4.
Relevance: Couldn’t be higher: For the fourth Scream movie, here’s a button that produces screams. Get it?
Item quality: 4. It doesn’t look that steady, but it unfailingly screams each time it’s pressed. And we mean each time. And as we explained to our co-workers over and over, we have to keep pressing it to make sure it keeps producing the noise, or we’re doing a disservice to our readers. If said co-workers don’t like it, they should find some other place to work. Gawd!
Why it’s a luxury: Do you have the lung power to spend all day screaming until you drive your co-workers out of the office? We didn’t think so.
Item: Pan Am explorer vintage-style travel bag
Promoting: The première of Pan Am on ABC.
Relevance: Once the leader in jet-setting sophistication, Pan Am now exists as a brand attempting to translate that sophistication into a time when travelers are lucky to board a plane after leaving only 75 percent of their dignity with a TSA officer. The most expensive item to bear Pan Am’s iconic globe logo and signature blue-and-white color scheme in 2011 was the $10 million pilot for the period drama bearing the erstwhile airline’s name—a mere $9.999911 million more than the suggested retail price for this replica of the tote that goes everywhere with Pan Am’s glamorous gaggle of ’60s stewardesses.
Item quality: 5. This is an item for which the average Dean or wannabe Kate Cameron, Sky Spy! is shelling out nearly $100, and it shows: It’s a sleek, stylish piece of mid-century fetishism that might not be 100 percent leather—just as the embattled Pan Am might not be 100 percent Mad Men.
Why it’s a luxury: Because it harkens back to a time when air travel was a luxury, not a $300 excuse to root around in a basket of snack-cracker bags while watching the major-studio claptrap you’d end up Netflixing in three months anyway. Because maybe, just maybe, you can reach into this bag and pull out a magical pair of aviator sunglasses that makes every T-shirt-and-sweatpants combo on your flight look like a three-piece suit or a smart shift dress.
Item: Set of four coasters
Promoting: A DVD featuring three sixth-season episodes of USA’s Psych.
Relevance: The former home of USA Up All Night and Silk Stalkings now specializes in escapist dramas with a lightly comedic edge—none more comedic than the improbably durable buddy-detective farce Psych. It’s the type of lightweight programming best enjoyed with a few friends and several cold beverages—and with these surprisingly hefty Psych coasters, fake-psychic/hyper-observant P.I. Shawn Spencer and his partner Burton “Gus” Guster can’t pin you for the Case Of The Mysterious Condensation Ring, What The Hell, Dude, I Thought I Told You This Table Was Real Wood.
Item quality: 2. The coasters are functional, but their form leaves something to be desired—unless the garish colors and geometric shapes encasing Shawn and Gus’ faces are the pop-culture savvy series’ way of tying its protagonists into the lineage of Miami Vice’s Sonny Crockett and Ricardo Tubbs. Either way, the design doesn’t look suited for adult drinkware so much as it looks like the cover of a supremely weird eighth-grader’s Trapper Keeper. (Don’t forget your White Collar lunchbox, Timmy!)
Why it’s a luxury: Because even fake psychics need to keep up appearances for their guests—especially when those guests include (according to the promotional materials included with the DVD and coasters) William Shatner, John Rhys-Davies, Danny Glover, and Hall Of Famer third baseman Wade Boggs.
Item: 1.5-ounce box of Howdy’s “Raisin Hope” cereal and Tagmaster Cereal On The Go cup
Promoting: The second season of Raising Hope on Fox.
Relevance: Remarkably high, considering the punny title and chintzy wrap job the Fox promo department slapped on a variety-pack box of Kellogg’s Raisin Bran. (At least they thought to include a charming photo of the show’s cast.) Howdy’s refers to the fictional supermarket chain that employs several of the series’ principal players—including protagonist Jimmy and the object of his unrequited affection, Sabrina—and the fact that it’s a crummy store-brand cereal speaks to the low economic status of those central characters. The show-branded Cereal On The Go Cup is an even cannier tie-in: It’s meant for adults, but looks like it should be used by a baby, like Jimmy’s daughter Hope. Thus, it’s a perfect metaphor for the man-child mantle the protagonist wants so badly to sidestep.
Item quality: 2. Raisin Bran isn’t a great cereal to begin with, and there’s something about the gel in the two-piece cup—meant to keep the milk side cold and the cereal side dry until you’re ready to eat them—that even a numbskull like Jimmy wouldn’t trust.
Why it’s a luxury: It isn’t, really, or it wouldn’t be a good promotional item for a blue-collar comedy.
Item: “Douchebag Jar” of bubblegum-filled lollipops
Promoting: Fox’s Zooey Deschanel vehicle, New Girl.
Relevance: After pounding the manufactured portmanteau “adorkable” into the ground in service of its freshman comedy, the network distributed this promotional take-off of the best joke from New Girl’s pilot. In the TV world, faux-smooth-talker Schmidt is forced to deposit a dollar in the jar each time he exhibits “douchebag” behavior—in the real world, TV critics reach into the Douchebag Jar whenever they need a mid-afternoon sugar fix wrapped in a fake dollar bill. The joke doesn’t really translate, which is okay, because the Douchebag Jar has only made one subsequent appearance on New Girl.
Item quality: 1. The candy’s sweetness hits immediately, but quickly subsides, like the charm of Deschanel’s singing. And it’s a weird item to keep around longer than the series itself deemed necessary.
Why it’s a luxury: Some TV characters ostentatiously display their wealth by lighting cigars with money. We can display ours by using it to wrap our candy.
Item: Touch-screen gloves
Promoting: SyFy’s Christmas Week, though it looks like the three shows being promoted all aired on December 6.
Relevance: We aren’t sure. The front of the box says “The gloves that help you have an LOL, OMG, GR8 Christmas no matter how cold it gets!” The gloves have a conductive silver fabric enabling them to work with your phone’s screen, so presumably you’d use them to text, tweet, and interact with your social networks about SyFy’s great night of programming on December 6! To the extreme!
Item quality: 5. Although they’re thin and a little flimsy, the gloves worked fine when we wore them while using our phones. But the knitting looks pretty porous, so the wind should rip right through them. We live in Chicago! Send us gloves designed for texting in the arctic!
Why it’s a luxury: They’re special gloves made so you can use your precious phone without your widdle fingers getting aww chillwy.
Item: Soap on a rope
Promoting: Jailbait, “an original, improvised comedy” from Crackle.com.
Relevance: It’s a rule in the publicity world that if you’re promoting anything prison-related—in this case, a web series about a guy going to the big house—you use a bar of soap. Because you never want to drop the soap in the shower, dude! (See, it’s easier for a person to stick his penis in your anus—uninvited!—when you bend over like that.) We can’t say whether star John Lehr likes it in the ass, either on the show or in real life.
Item quality: 3. It smells pretty medicinal, but the rope is sturdy. The 35-word instructions explaining how to use it were helpful.
Why it’s a luxury: When you’re on the inside, you’re generally at the mercy of whatever food and supplies the state bought from the lowest bidder, and that never means a quality soap. A nice soap on a rope is one of the little things that will help you get through each hellish day, though it’ll never wash the unclean off after what Big Pun’s going to do to you in C-Block.
Item: Non-Frisbee-brand flying disc
Promoting: The launch party for something called SociaLogic. “We’re a full-service social media marketing management group dedicated to the belief that amid the ruins of aggressively pushed mass media marketing lies the secret to successful brand management,” says its perky website, though we’re too dizzy from the biz-speak to parse what that means.
Relevance: The logo on top replaces the “I”s in “SociaLogic” with people tossing a Frisbee to each other, above the tagline “Our brand is bigger than mine.” So… yeah.
Item quality: 4. It’s about as nice as a cheap swag Frisbee gets.
Why it’s a luxury: Listen, pal, you may want to play with a Frisbee that doesn’t have some random logo on it, but you’ll never make an impression in this world of aggressively pushed mass-media marketing that way! The secret to successful brand management is getting your name out there. You have to spend money to make money, so you pony up for the luxurious branded Frisbees. Also, always be closing, coffee is for closers only, give us the Glengarry leads goddammit, etc.
Item: Casino games set
Promoting: Steve Niles’ Remains, an original movie adaptation of the graphic novel for the Chiller TV Network.
Relevance: Set in post-zombie apocalypse Reno, Nevada—so current-day, basically. Zing!—Remains follows a group of survivors holed up in a vacant casino, where they presumably pass the time by quietly gambling.
Item quality: 5. The set comes in a handsome wooden box, with two sets of Remains-branded playing cards, five dice, and 100 heavy poker chips (50 red, 50 black). The whole package has a weight that says “quality” and “expensive to ship.”
Why it’s a luxury: When the zombie apocalypse happens, the survivors will be bored out of their minds during the day. A game of poker—even, say, strip poker? C’mon, baby, this may be our last day on Earth—is just the thing to pass the time and maybe win a fellow survivor’s food cache, if the cards go your way. And how crazy will it be that you’ll have a zombie-themed poker set? Talk about a conversation-starter!
Item: A mysterious electronic device
Promoting: The alternate-reality Human Preservation Project game tied in with 5 Gum.
Relevance: Entirely unclear when we first got it—it was just a big black electronic gizmo that came with a fake ID picturing Summer Glau as “Natalia Suttinger,” who has “Lab Clearance: 5” at “Human Preservation Project” in “neuro-analytics protocol.” When plugged in, it appears to receive local radio stations, but the tuner knob can be adjusted to bring in Glau’s voice, sending out an urgent, cryptic, repeating message about the human organism, the scientific process, and “fighting back.” Turns out this was just another clue in an elaborate, unfolding online game.
Item quality: 6. This is the most impressive promo item we’ve ever gotten, both in terms of ambition and in terms of sheer strangeness. Instead of selling an object, it was an early buy-in for an experience that wasn’t even available yet.
Why it’s a luxury: It’s a free radio and a free source of information about an entire online world. More importantly, it did what all promo items should do: It intrigued us, provided a distraction from the workday, and got us curious and involved. The privilege of actually being surprised and intrigued by a random object in the mail is a rare luxury indeed.