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Free stuff

by Philip Martin | March 26, 2023 at 2:00 a.m.

I got an email the other day from a watch company--not a Swiss watch company, but an American up-and-comer you've probably never heard of--inviting me to become one of their brand "creators." If I'd agree to promote their brand on social channels, I could earn commissions, complimentary product and "the promotion of [my] personal brand across our social platforms."

I did not accept this offer.

I could tell you I didn't accept because of my high-minded journalistic ethics. I could tell you about the opportunities to serve on boards and ghostwriting gigs I've declined. But the truth is, if it had been another watch company, I might not have been so quick to say "no thanks." If I'm going to sell out, it's not going to be for a nice entry-level luxury watch. I'm mostly an Omega guy.

Also, like the guy who keeps trying to sell me a share in a Gulfstream G800, they've probably mistaken me for someone else.

I have an idea why they sought me out. Automatic watches are fascinating; I own a few and have discussed them on blogs and podcasts and written about them for this newspaper. But I don't have the sort of social media profile they're looking for (I have an Instagram account, but am not on TikTok. My Twitter [email protected], please follow!--is modest.

I started social media accounts in self-defense, back when we weren't sure where any of this newfangled Internet stuff was going to go, and maintain them to follow people who alert me to interesting ideas and music. Mostly what I post are links to newspaper stories and photos of dogs. Being a born-in-the-1950s boomer, I check Facebook, but have to be reminded to look at the other accounts.

But just because I take this approach to social media doesn't mean that it's not an important cultural engine. Technology is a tool; the outcomes it produces are a function of our characters. We can rail against what we see as the vapidity of influencer culture, but it's probably not an easy way to make a living and no more absurd than being a tennis pro or playing cornerback. It's just another way to sell products.

Nobody is making you watch, but obviously enough do to keep the business model sustainable. For what I imagine is a lot less than the price of a celebrity endorsement, a brand gets a pretty person with a large social media following to impress its product on its followers. And some percentage of the followers will actually pay full retail for the product, because they aspire to be like the models on the 'Gram.

You can warn them all you want; consumers are going to consume.

About 20 years ago, I had a couple of friends who worked for big golf club manufacturers who would occasionally send me stuff--T-shirts, hats, the occasional driver or wedge--not because I worked at a newspaper and would write glowing reviews of their gear, but because they had an allotment of B-stock and promotional items they could give away to anyone for whatever purpose. And back then I could move the ball pretty well.

I don't know that anybody ever looked in my bag to see what I was playing--I'm brand agnostic, playing clubs from every major manufacturer over the years--but they might have.

Sometimes they'd ask for feedback and I'd fill out a little report. I like to think I had something to do with the development of Titleist Pro-V1 golf balls; I got four or five sleeves of various prototypes a year before the ball went on sale.

And often it comes down to a matter of degree.

I won't take a $1,000 watch, but have been getting free records since 1975, and free books since the mid-1980s. Review copies are an accepted industry practice, as are comped theater tickets and product samples.

One of the freelance critics who writes movie reviews for us asked me if it was all right if she kept the promotional "White Noise" sweatshirt Netflix had sent her during award season. (I said it was OK with me but that she'd better report it on her tax return.)

One of the reasons I don't write the Spirits column for this newspaper as often as I used to is because I didn't feel great turning in expense chits for $80 bottles of bourbon every couple of weeks.

So mostly the column relies on "product sample" provided by public relations firms. If you send it, I may write about it. But I reserve the right not to, and the right to make fun of it or say it's pretty awful swill. (After all, they knew I was a scorpion ...)

I used to write another column called "Consumables" not about stuff, but about the ways we relate to it. Like why do some people name their cars, and why are some people enamored of limited-release sneakers? Most of us like nice things, and it's worth examining the psychology that underpins our consumer culture.

Some people are comforted by having walls of vinyl records or safes full of high-end handguns, and it has less to do with playing those records or firing those handguns than the collectors might admit. Bruce Springsteen once said that when he was younger, he was strictly a one-guitar man, but as he acquired the means he wanted "a beautiful guitar in every room."

A lot of people express scorn for things, but most of them are posing. I'm married to one of the few people I've ever known who genuinely doesn't care for material objects, but even she has a soft spot for a few paintings and pieces of jewelry. And she loves her car.

Though if someone wants to send her a Rivian R1S, she'd probably be happy to consider writing something about it. She might even tweet.

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