The Ethics of Vendor Swag


Another confession from me: I love swag. (Stress balls are my weakness.) I’ve made fun of a lot of lame swag, and, to lawyers who coveted items they saw on my desk, I’ve traded cool swag for Starbucks coffee. Embarrassingly, I’ve even blogged about swag. In an industry where it’s ubiquitous, it’s hard not to think about it. Need proof? Look at how many of the#lawlibswag tweets were about “fond memories of swag from conferences past” (@conniecrosby).

Whether I can say with 100% certainty that I am able to remain unbiased by swag, I don’t know. And maybe people will think now that my ethics have gone out the window, but I really don’t get what the big fuss is with the Westlaw iPod scandal.

Maybe things are a little different in the private law library world, but in my almost seven years on the job, I’ve never once heard anyone question the ethics of accepting a gift from a vendor. Steve Matthews tweets it quite nicely: “You don’t become a law librarian for the $. And I’ve never met a LL who could be ‘bribed’ over a $100 ipod.”

The way I, and most of my colleagues, have always seen swag is this: you’ve already paid for it (or will, very shortly), so you might as well get some use out of it.

I fail to see a clear distinction between accepting swag, and say, imbibing at corporate-sponsored, open bar parties at library conferences, or letting your rep take you for a Christmas lunch. This debate brings up a whole variety of questions. Is it unethical to accept a doorprize at an association luncheon? Does it make a difference if the prize is something you can use professionally vs. personally? (I’m thinking winning a credit for books vs. a gift certificate for a retail store.) To me, it’s pretty simple. If you feel wrong about it, don’t accept it, or send it back. No matter what you do, not accepting swag will not result in lower invoices, or better customer service, or more savoury marketing tactics.

To me, the bottom line is this: Westlaw isn’t trying to buy anyone. They’re not even trying to convince anyone that their product is superior. All this campaign (the iPods, the trips to Eagan) was about was publicity. Mission accomplished. They were probably even luckier that people got worked up about the ethics of it, because now it’s all anyone’s talked about for a few days.

Whether they spend the money on a print campaign or buying iPods to send to influential bloggers, what does it matter? The cost of marketing is built into the price of the products, along with the salaries of the vendor’s employees, building maintenance, Christmas parties, etc. I don’t know if because libraries are supposed to be about impartiality and access to information, we think that we should somehow expect the same from our vendors, but they’re in business just like everyone else.

Lastly, and completely glibly, are we seriously raising a fuss about iPods? As a good friend of mine once said, “they give those away in cereal boxes these days!”  To me, it’s not all that much different from a USB key. And as more than one person suggested, if they really were trying to impress (which I don’t think they were), they should have sprang for iPads. Bloggers would have had a field day with that!



4 Responses to “The Ethics of Vendor Swag”

  1. 1 Karen

    I have to say that the more “personal” the gift, the more I think about my relationship with that vendor before I accept it. Any advantage for my firm, like a free text that I would have bought anyway, no problem – like you say, it’s built into the price of the product. But when it’s aimed at me personally, like buying me lunch, I have had second thoughts.

    On the other hand, I take pens and notepads all the time. I don’t mind being reminded of the product every time I use them.

  2. 2 Andrew

    Interestingly, the ‘built into the price of the product’ argument is also used by shoplifters and ‘renters’ for justification. I’m not judging either way but it’s something to consider…

  3. 3 Brenda

    I have to add that I benefited from West’s on site preview to bloggers as I read Simon Chester’s detailed analysis. On a related note Nancy’s office have asked department heads to give up corporate gifts for a Xmas raffle for internal staff. Is their fairness in that?

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