Swag is an odd word. It can mean a drooping piece of fabric. It can also mean moving unsteadily and being out of control. When used as a noun, however, it becomes really fascinating.
When I was growing up, swag was a negative term meaning services, goods or money obtained illegally. Swagman, in Australian terminology, was a word used to describe a transient who traveled with his swag bag, moving from job to job, with the implicit suggestion that he was really a no-good thief. Now the name is attached to a line of motor homes, bike racks, a hotel, a software developer and even a publisher.
After attending a recent trade show, I left feeling like I was a swagman with my large bag full of goodies (the current meaning of swag after pop musicians began throwing token, rather commercial, gifts at their fans), all warmly presented to me by organizations and exhibitors. This experience made me contemplate the nature of swag these days.
A sector of my wardrobe — actually in a removal van at this moment — is stuffed with shirts donated over the years. Some are great, but others are a bit dubious and are bad enough that I wouldn't want to be seen wearing them outside the house. Swag CD carrying cases abound at the moment in all sorts of shapes and formats, as do PC mirrors and USB-powered lights to illuminate your laptop keyboard. (How many can you use at once?)
Pens are still big in the giveaway spectrum. If you look in a promotion company's catalog, you will see that the prices for pens range from cheap (and poor quality) up to those that are moderately expensive with, usually, a dramatic increase in quality and life.
What is the poorest swag I have seen this year? A bookmark. No, it wasn't gold-plated or anything — just a cheap paper bookmark.
What else is hot? USB Flash memory is a useful gift, especially for working journalists. It even comes with an extension cable.
I have also received a pen that acts as a cell phone detector with a neon light at the top that flashes quite a distance from an operating cell phone. To extend shelf life, it even came in an entirely metal case — its own little RF cage. Why would anyone need such a thing? It's fun to watch it being used in the supermarket. It's mind-boggling how people cannot even grocery shop without wireless assistance. Maybe flight attendants should be detector-equipped to find those naughty customers using BlackBerries in RF mode in the air.
Another piece of cool swag is a dual dial, dual time zone watch — a nice one with a leather strap. From a design point, you would assume that it would use a single oscillator for the two displays. However, that isn't the case. I set the two dials to read the same time, and I can see the sweeps of the second hands moving slowly away from one another. Shows how cheap the oscillators must be!
At the last show I was at, the most popular piece of swag was a large walking stick with a metal base. I surmised to myself it was not something to easily talk security at the airport into letting you by with. The Transportation Security Administration is a humorless lot.
The weirdest swag I received was at the technical Emmy awards in New York. It was a set of long, tiny spoons from NEC, which were supposedly part of a tea ceremony kit, but they looked like they were for another crushed powder.
What kind of new swag would I like? How about a solar-powered pocket-sized calculator with decent-sized keys? Or the return of a high-quality coffee mug? The last one I got was from Tektronix in 2000. (How do I remember that? Because it says so on the mug.)
My mother always said I would go bad — but a swagman? She would have never guessed.
Paul McGoldrick is an industry consultant based on the West Coast.
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