The American Economy Might Be Built on Free Tote Bags

Philadelphians are seduced by the price-tagless.

A few weeks ago, I dropped by Love Park for the “Top Chef” roadshow, featuring a four-round cook-off between TC alums Eli Kirshtein and homegirl Jennifer Carroll. Admission was free, and as I crossed JFK Boulevard, the crowd looked impressive. One line stretched around the corner, and I figured it was the sign-up for the next cooking challenge between the celebu-chefs. Or maybe it was for autographs and photos with the stars.

As it turned out, the biggest attraction was the Xfinity table, where folks waited in the middle of a workday to take some sort of goofy quiz on a tablet. Not smart? Barely literate? No problem. A woman in an Xfinity shirt would gladly talk you through it. For your time—and I assume your email address or phone number—you’d walk away with an Xfinity tote bag, or better yet, an Xfinity visor. “I’m trying to get a hat,” said one lady in line, seemingly oblivious to the 18-wheel “Top Chef” trailer or anything else going on around her. Not even the presence of two reality TV personalities outshined the age-old appeal of free stuff, crappy as that free stuff may be. It seems we’ve become a nation of swagoholics, addicted to the lure of anything without price tag.

I’m not immune to these giveaways, most of which is junk and ends up making my closet look like a scene from “Hoarders.” I’d let my subscription to Vanity Fair lapse, and all it took to hook me for another year was the offer of a free bag. In the photo, the thing looked ideal for a trip to the beach. Of course, I should have known better—the real thing was about half the size it appeared to be and as well-constructed as the Payless sneakers I had for about a week in the sixth grade. I also waited to renew with the New Yorker until they enticed me with more than a magazine. I now have a sturdy canvas tote that makes me look smart and will likely never see the light of day. I can’t remember the last time I used a tote bag. Even writing the words “tote bag” makes me cringe.

You’ll see this obsession play out en masse at sporting events. During one of the Sixers playoff games against the Celtics last month, the team gave out shirts. Everyone who walked through the door got a surprisingly sharp-looking tee emblazoned with the team logo. Yet one of the biggest cheers of the night came when the Sixers hype squad rolled out a massive cannon that sprayed more free shirts into the desperate hands of the home crowd. You see the same freak-out reaction when the Phanatic launches foil-wrapped hot dogs into the upper decks with his truck-mounted gun. I can’t imagine what state that processed meat is in after it’s been blasted hundreds of feet through the sky and pawed at like a foul ball, but it never fails to drive people crazy. There’s even a faux documentary on the Hatfield Hot Dog Launcher. I’ll admit the 12-year-old inside of me thinks a beef bazooka is pretty freaking cool.

It’s tempting to say our swag lust has something to do with the struggling economy, unemployment rates and all sorts of socio-economic factors. Maybe there’s some truth to that. But really, I think it’s simply a byproduct of the good old American way: If you’re giving something away, I’m taking it, even if it’s just a lousy visor with the logo of the cable company that gives me fits every three months when my rates go up. I felt a sense of pride that day when I didn’t stand in line like all the other lemmings, hands open, waiting for Xfinity gear. Instead, I made my way to the Dietz and Watson stand. No cannons, but they were giving away hot dogs, with a variety of condiments. Who am I to pass that up?