What’s in a $150,000 Oscar swag bag

Key Takeaways

  • Oscar nominees receive swag bags filled with extravagant gifts, worth $150,000 to more than $200,000 and the IRS taxes them as income.
  • The bags are technically unaffiliated with the Academy of Arts and Sciences and are instead handed out by a Los Angeles marketing firm called Distinctive Assets.
  • Swag can include everything from designer skin creams to lavish private cruises to free liposuction.

The 94th Academy Awards are just a few weeks away, which means it’s almost time for the big reveal. No, not the Best Picture winner. Insiders in the product space want to know what’s in this year’s Oscar swag bag.

Each year, lucky celebrities get to bring home more than just a golden statue. Oscar nominees for acting and directing receive swag bags filled with extravagant gifts from companies, hotels, businesses and more, which can include everything from designer skin creams to expensive spa trips to fancy candles to lavish private cruises to free liposuction.

 Dubbed the “Everybody Wins” bags, they can range from $150,000 to more than $200,000 in value, though the goodies aren’t totally free for celebs — since the IRS considers gift bags to be a form of income, celebrities might have to hand the government nearly 50 percent of the bag’s worth in taxes. They’re also not technically bags — more like multiple suitcases that get shipped to the nominees ahead of the ceremony.

Even with the tax burden, celebrities love swag bags. And Elaine Parker, the Director of National Accounts at promotional e-retailer PromoShop, says these opulent bags can do a lot to boost a participating company’s visibility.

“Celebrities are influencers. If you give them free swag and they love it, they will post on social media,” Parker told Yieldstreet in an email. “Their TikTock or Instagram profiles have millions of followers. It could create a HUGE demand for any product.”

The swag bag tradition dates all the way back to 1989, when the Academy started handing out discreet thank you gifts to presenters and performers. The gift bags grew in value over the years, as more and more companies noticed how the celebrity exposure elevated their profiles. But when the IRS began cracking down on the bags in the early aughts, the Academy began distancing themselves from the bags and eventually stopped handing them out altogether.

That wasn’t the end of the swag bag. Los Angeles-based marketing firm Distinctive Assets, founded by Lash Fary, had already been handing out their own $40,000 “Everybody Wins” bag to celebrities before the Academy distanced themselves from the practice, and they soon took over in an unofficial capacity. Other marketing firms hand out their own gift bags at awards ceremonies as well, but it’s the Distinctive Assets bags —now on their 20th year of distribution — that grab the headlines and the swankiest gifts.

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In 2020, for instance, Forbes reports that the “Everybody Wins” swag bag was stuffed with $225,000 worth of gifts, including a $29.99 HFactor “hydrogen-infused” water pouch; a $150 gold-plated Hollowtips cannabis vape pen; up to $25,000 worth of fillers and other cosmetic treatments courtesy of Manhattan doctor Konstantin Vasyukevich; and a 12-day cruise to Antarctica and the Mediterranean on a 220-person luxury yacht, provided by Scenic Luxury Cruises & Tours and worth $78,190. 

2021 was a slightly more scaled-down affair. Amid the Covid-19 pandemic and nationwide unrest after the murder of George Floyd, Fary opted for more socially-conscious gifts. “We did want the bags to feel like they had a bigger purpose than just, ‘Here’s a bag full of free stuff,’” Fary told Forbes. “So all of the bags that we’ve been doing have been from female-owned businesses, black-owned businesses, disabled entrepreneurs, and companies who give back — even ones that you wouldn’t necessarily think give back.”

The $205,000-value bag included medical-grade masks from 99Guard; 24-karat gold vape cartridges from Hollowtips; an emergency PETA hammer for breaking animals out of hot cars; the Muse S: The Brain Sensing Headband sleep tracker; and a $12,000, four-night stay for two at Southern California spa Golden Door. 

It does cost companies to donate goods to the Oscar bags — in addition to the cost of product, labor and distribution, Forbes says that Distinctive Assets charges anywhere from $4,000 to $50,000 for inclusion. But that cost can pay off. Take, for instance, Canada-based e-retail candle company Coal & Canary. As the Canada Post reports, in 2015, the then-six-year-old small business created 300 special box sets ahead of the Oscars, some of which Distinctive Assets included in the “Everybody Wins” bag. When the bags went live, excited collectors bought out the rest of the box sets, and only three months later, the then-six-year-old company hit its 10-year goal for eCommerce growth.

This year’s swag bag gifts haven’t been revealed yet, but whatever the gifts, the companies behind them are likely to see a boost in sales. 

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