The tradition of giving gift bags to attendees at professional conferences started with the Aztecs. As a courtesy, priests visiting from different cities were handed a complementary bag of human hearts to take home, because obviously, unless you can display a set of useless set of branded trinkets, coffee mugs, “I heart” teddy bears, calendars, clocks, perfumes, and human organs, well, it’s like you never showed up in the first place. The International AIDS Conference 2012 has the dubious distinction of receiving a brief tongue-in-cheek shout-out from the satirical news site The Onion for its perplexing “schwag bags” of AIDS paraphernalia, but since I have the Oscars on my mind (another ludicrous example of professional gifting – meant primarily as a consolation to those vain actors who didn’t actually receive an award they were nominated for), I thought I would pick up the battle cry and ask a few hard questions.
A colleague recently travelled to Thailand and elected not to take any luggage, figuring that it would ultimately be cheaper to buy anything he needed on location. Given the exorbitant rates airlines are now charging for any luggage larger than a purse, I regarded this as sound logic. While eavesdropping – I am a social psychologist after all, so I am allowed to do so, as long as I call it “research” – I overheard conference attendees talking about doing the same thing when they traveled to AIDS 2012. They expected to receive so much conference schwag that they would be filling up luggage on the return trip. Scientifically minded, I decided to conduct an experiment. My bags are filled with shoes, so obviously as a substitute, I took one of the hotel room drawers, and was able to fill it to the brim with all the things I’ve picked up, without any actual attempt to do so, simply by being in a place where schwag was provided, I noted 5 t-shirts, 5 teddy bears, clocks, calendars, flags, perfumes, and assorted marketing flotsam and jetsam, as well as numerous puzzling artifacts which I have yet to identify.
It seems that in this day and age, particularly when we are engaged in a human service profession, interested in bettering the lives of those mired in contexts of vulnerability, the infirm, the stigmatized, or the afflicted, this overwhelming amount of conference schwag strikes a discordant note. We have heard a recurring message about ADAP waiting lists, and the high cost of medicines for those with HIV. Why don’t we recognize that professional adults don’t need to be bribed with tchotchkes to attend a conference, particularly when most of what is handed out will eventually find its way into the hands of a toddler, or into a box at the back of the closet. Use of “incentives’ is a popular concept in the non-profit world, but should it really extend to professional conferences? Maybe we could use the money spent on conference schwag to pay for medication for a few hundred people. There is an endemic problem in the prevention field at it is the over-incentivizing of programs. We tend to give people gift cards for attending educational health sessions. Does this occur in other fields? Why do we feel the need to pay people to learn or engage in healthier behaviors? I get up every day at 6 AM to workout. Nobody pays me for this. Although, I do have a serious gummy bear habit to finance – can someone send me CVS gift cards for my exercise?
And does anyone know which booth is giving out those adorable stuffed Koala bears?