Defenders Investigation: Taxpayers funding promotional freebies


by ANDY PIERROTTI / KVUE News and photojournalist DEREK RASOR

Bio | Email | Follow: @AndyP_KVUE

Posted on May 22, 2013 at 10:43 PM

Updated Thursday, May 23 at 7:14 AM

AUSTIN -- Walk through any convention, and you'll walk away with a bag full of freebies. Also know as swag, companies give pens, cozies and coffee mugs away hoping their logos on each item will lure business.

Local and state governments spend money on similar swag too, paid for with tax dollars.

After digging through City of Austin financial records, the KVUE Defenders found the city spent $369,031 on purchases identified as “educational or promotional” items.

One receipt shows the city’s Economic Growth and Redevelopment Services spent $179 on mini-guitars to give to international visitors.

Another purchase shows the city’s fire department spent $500 on 20 pocket knives.

Asst. Chief Harry Evans approved the purchase.

"It's a unique gift. It's something more than a coffee cup," Evans explained.

The fire department has only given away one knife so far. Evans says it's reserved for special visitors.
"So, as part of the reciprocation in the sharing of knowledge, I think it's appropriate for the city, in this very small way, to acknowledge someone sharing with us," Evans said.

State agencies spend money on swag too. At the Texas Department of State Health Services, the KVUE Defenders found staff spent more than $1 million on freebies over the past two and a half years.

Some DSHS purchases include $13,160 on pedometers and $550 on 25 MP3 players. All items were given away for free to persuade the public to exercise.

"The idea is that they would use it and help boost their physical activity throughout the course of the class," explained DSHS spokesperson Carrie Williams.

Williams said the swag is used to promote public health, not the agency.

"It's a long-term investment. If we get one person tested or one person immunized, that extends beyond that day. That goes on to benefit that person for their whole life," Williams said.

The Texas Department of Transportation spent $384,000 on freebies during the same time period. One records show the agency spent $24,504 on plastic wristbands for its "Text, Talk and Crash campaign."

"It's a branding tool. It is a marketing tool. It's been here many, many years,” said University of Texas advertising professor Dr. Gary Wilcox about the swag.

Wilcox says promotional freebies have limited value because it's difficult to measure swag’s effectiveness, unlike online promotions that can be tracked.

"[Online promotions] track who sees the message, how many times they see it, perhaps even track their traffic through the website to the ultimate purchase. That's really hard to do with swag,” Wilcox said.

The City of Austin and state agencies argue these purchases are less than one percent of their entire budget.

In 2011, California stopped agencies from buying swag to save the state money. KVUE News sent our findings to Governor Rick Perry’s office, but have not received a response.

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