Free Swag and the Rule of Reciprocity

Say no to free samples

You are now obligated to buy things. PHOTO: LINE SKIS
You are now obligated to buy things. PHOTO: LINE SKIS

The scene is common enough. You’re at the Dew Games or Movie Premiere X, and MonsterBull’s in the corner handing out free cans of carbonated liver poison while the emcee throws out free swag—T-shirts, hats, coozies, lanyards, sticker packs, or whatever the petroleum-based product of the day happens to be. While kids climbing over each other to claim an ugly polyester balaclava seems innocent enough, there’s some more sinister psychology at work.

The rule of reciprocity runs deep. Parents teach their children that when they receive something, they are obligated to repay that debt. It’s a simple concept of give and take, and one that works in surprising ways. Behavorial scientists have found that if a waiter leaves a mint with the bill, diners will tip up to 23 percent more. BYU Sociology professor Phil Kunz sent Christmas cards to 578 strangers he had never met, and received 117 in reply, some several pages long and with attached photos of family members.

The Hare Krishna employed this brilliantly in their fundraising by offering a red flower to people in airports before asking for a donation. They found that the tactic doubled donations even though many who donated did so begrudgingly. That’s another important facet of the rule of reciprocity—that the return action often outweighs the initial gift. What also influences the receiver’s actions is the personalization of the gift and the element of surprise. So when in the course of casual conversation the rep from Brand X says “Hey, man, you’re pretty ugly. Wanna hide that mug behind a Brand X facemask?”, both the spontaneity and the thoughtful giving of the freebie both pull the response trigger that much harder.

So how does this play out in the ski community? Is Full Tilt so sophisticated and soulless in their marketing that they know by giving you a beanie you’re going to scrimp to buy some $600 boots, just to simply rid yourself of the agonizing emotional burden of a debt owed? It’s hard to think so, but then again, the wheels that are turning to create such a sequence are by and large subconscious.

The fall movie premiere is a classic case study. Every presentation of a new film demands the all-important free schwag toss, where athletes from the film or Frankie Alisuag throw the cheapest possible logo tees and last year’s Flexfit hats into the crowd of hands, bodies heaving over the fixed seats, teens jumping in the air so they can snag that free lanyard out of the air before t-boning themselves on the armrest three rows down. Next time you find yourself in this situation—the emcee winding up a shitty skier pitch of a Brand X Whateveritis, your legs subconsciously preparing to launch you into the air for the catch—take a mental cigarette break. Preferably an Inception-style one, so that the two seconds between the toss and catch allows you a solid fifteen minutes to think it over. Do I really need that logo’ed 90/10 polyester balaclava for my kit this year? More importantly, am I okay with dropping a few hundo on Brand X’s skis/boots/outerwear just to rid myself of the overbearing guilt of a favor owed? Giving yourself a second to think over the implications of your actions in the context of reciprocity might make you second-guess that product toss snatch or free hand-out.

The truly disciplined, however, can go ahead and enjoy their free gift, knowing it’s only an evil marketing ploy after all. Parents are probably just better off duct-taping their kids to the seat, and maybe giving them an unanticipated gift of some Junior Mints. Maybe they’ll feel obligated to shut up in return.

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