The marketing behind the six-figure gift bags given to Oscar nominees

“You can’t win if you don’t buy a ticket. And being a part of these gift bags is like buying a lottery ticket,” Lash Fary, founder of gift-bag company Distinctive Assets, told us.
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Illustration: Dianna “Mick” McDougall, Photos: Getty Images, Sweetums, Bateel, The Lifestyle, Reflect Orb

· 5 min read

Since 1999, Lash Fary has been curating (very expensive) Hollywood award show gift bags via his company, Distinctive Assets—and making headlines for it.

For the Oscars this year, he said the “Everyone Wins” gift bags—in total worth more than $100,000 each—will include an eight-person trip to the Faro Punta Imperatore Lighthouse in Italy and another to The Lifestyle estate in Canada, worth $9,000 and $40,000, respectively. Oscar nominees who receive the gifts will also receive things like Miage skincare sets, ēcōMD retinol, and Havaianas flip flops and luggage sets.

Brands pay a $4,000 fee to land a spot in the bag (which is unaffiliated with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the Oscars and is apparently more of a trunk), hoping the investment pays off in some way. Of course, there’s no guarantee a celebrity will use a product or take a trip offered in the bag, but if they do, there’s a chance they’ll post about it—or at least be photographed with it.

“Everyone wants to win the lottery,” Fary told us. “But you can’t win if you don’t buy a ticket. And being a part of these gift bags is like buying a lottery ticket.”

Stars…they’re just like influencers?

When Fary started making gift bags, first for the Grammys, he said brands didn’t fully understand the business model. “Twenty-three years ago, it was a very different landscape,” he said. “It’s not like brands understood, ‘Okay, so I’m gonna pay you a fee and give you free products to give to people who can afford to buy it.’”

Now, he said brands like the Reflect Orb (valued at $229) approach Distinctive Assets to be included in his company’s gift bags. Certain categories, like skin care and tea, are usually the first to fill up, he said.

Fary and his team also pitch brands to be included, though he said they receive a fair number of noes, often for reasons like timing and budget. For the Oscars and Grammys specifically, he said there are about 65–75 brands in the bags each year. In addition to the $4,000 inclusion fee, brands can opt for sponsorship-level upgrades, such as participation in his satellite media tour.

Distinctive Assets does not have any affiliation with the Oscars, as made clear by a 2016 lawsuit alleging trademark infringement that was settled out of court, but has been making Everyone Wins bags for 21 years. Fary said operating independent of the academy gives his team more flexibility in how they deliver gifts (like through Postmates, for example) and who receives them. Currently, recipients are the host, plus nominees for best actor and actress, best supporting actor and actress, and best director.

From a brand perspective, Fary said many are looking to develop name recognition among celebrities and hopefully put “things on their radar that they wouldn’t really have known about otherwise.”

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For instance, Viola Davis visited Kauai’s Koloa Landing in 2018 after a voucher was in the Everybody Wins bag that year: “She posted about…the resort with the name in the background and gave a shout out to them,” he said. “That was icing on the cake.”

Even in cases where celebrities don’t post, he said the potential press for being associated with a celebrity is a draw for brands—whether from paparazzi photos, as he said was the case with a shirt Amy Adams wore, or a product showing up down the line, like he said when Camila Cabello did a Vogue interview in a coat that was given out at the Grammys.

That being said, it can be difficult to tell if a celebrity actually used a gift; they can, presumably, afford many of these items on their own. Still, if a brand sees a nominee wearing or using their product months later, it can at least assume that the gift bags might have played a role.

In this economy?

When asked if he feels pressure to make the bags bigger and more expensive each year, Fary said he never feels like the best gifts he’s gotten were the most expensive, but there is pressure against precedent.

“I feel like I always have to have it be at least six figures, just so the headlines aren’t that the gift bag industry no longer works and the value is the lowest it’s ever been,” he said. “It’s more of a box to check for me at this point more so than my goal.”

But having such a high price tag doesn’t come without criticism of its own, particularly at a time of high inflation and rising income inequality. Of the expensive items in last year’s bag, one New York magazine writer wrote, “Haha, my stomach hurts!”

That criticism isn’t necessarily new: In 2006, Edward Norton called gift bags “disgusting and shameful.” Beyond that, Distinctive Assets has also faced criticism over the years for including things like a trip to Israel and posthumous Chadwick Boseman NFTs in Everyone Wins bags (not to mention things like sex toys, which Fary told us was meant to be a “nice discreet way” of getting visible people something private, but which he’s stopped gifting since).

Despite the angry tweets he’s received around gifting the wealthy, Fary emphasized that the gifted products aren’t purchased by him and would be used for “some other business purpose” if not included in the gift bags.

“It’s not like the option is this goes to Cate Blanchett or it goes to a homeless person,” he said. “It’s just simple marketing.”

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