I would like to unapologetically confess that I am a trade show swag junkie.

When I attend a conference, I always make sure to leave enough time to roam the exhibit hall, where the display booths gleam and smiling reps beckon with tales of amazing products or companies. It's like the world's nerdiest carnival, only better—because in a real carnival, you can never win that 7-foot-tall stuffed SpongeBob because the stupid basketball is only a micron smaller in diameter than the hoop. At a vendor fair, free swag (or "schwag," if you're Sean Connery or speak Yiddish) is everywhere. You don't even have to deal with carnies calling, "Hurry, hurry, right this way! Step right up and win a glow-in-the-dark microfiber wipe laser pen with the New Caledonia BioTherapeutics logo on it! For just one American dollar, I will guess your age, your weight, or your analytical spectrophotometry needs!"

I write with free pens, I wear free T-shirts, and I freshen my breath with tins of free peppermints—all bearing the names of companies I've never heard of. I say this with pride, not shame, as swag-gathering is a form of freeganism, a way to survive grad school while avoiding those exorbitant pen, T-shirt, and mint bills.

For the longest time, I couldn't figure out if this was an example of me being clever or me being a cheap jerkface. Assuming it's the former, I'm pleased to share my favorite tips and strategies to help you, dear reader, walk out of any exhibit hall or vendor fair loaded down with free corporate goodies. (If it's the latter, then here are some tips you should follow if you want to become a cheap jerkface.)

Start with a bag.

In fact, accept the first bag someone offers you. You'll be glad you did when you're waddling down the second aisle, arms so full of freebies that you start stuffing the carabiners into the acrylic tumblers and the acrylic tumblers into your pants.

But don't take one of those drawstring sport packs with two metal eyelets at the bottom that's meant to be worn as a backpack.

Aren't those ridiculous? Have you ever tried carrying stuff in one of those? The cords cut into your shoulders because that's what rope does, everybody. Who actually uses these bags? Is this an athlete thing?

Check your guilt at the door.

I once took a flimsy little Frisbee from a company at a career fair, then thought better of my choice and returned the Frisbee to their table. A couple booths later, the Frisbee booth rep actually caught up to me and asked why I didn't keep the Frisbee. "I'm in charge of selecting the free stuff my company buys," she explained, "so if someone doesn't want one of our free items, I'd like to know why."

This taught me an important lesson: For the most part, they want you to take their swag. You aren't bankrupting Microsoft by taking two pens. They brought 5000 of them, and the rep doesn't want to get back on the plane to Seattle with 4500.

Avoid the reps.

If you want to have a 15-minute conversation about new serological pipettes, more power to you. But if you just want the cute little dancing wind-up ferret, make your move when the booth rep is busy. Recommended techniques include waiting until he or she is (a) swarmed by legitimately interested attendees, (b) troubleshooting PowerPoint, or (c) distracted by a large predatory bird that you just "happened" to release in the exhibit hall.

Find the secret premium swag.


CREDIT: Hal Mayforth

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Booth reps are cunning folk. They may have a giant bowl of free hard candies on the table, but what's this behind the hard candies? Mysterious little cardboard boxes? And only eight of them?

Many a swag seeker is thwarted by the inability to get the really good stuff, because that stuff is often reserved for those who show genuine interest. And genuine interest means a lengthy conversation, which you don't have time for. That's why I invented the Unrelated Field Brush-Off. Behold:

REP: Hi! Are you interested in what we do here at Anytown Biolabs for Biology and Biological Bio?
YOU: I sure am! Wow! What a company!
REP: Here, have a mysterious cardboard box that I'm not giving to most people. So, can I ask what field you're in?
YOU: Certainly! I'm a theoretical mathematician!
REP: Oh. Well, … we don't actually have anything to do with that.
YOU: Sorry, I didn't realize.
REP: That's okay. You can keep the mysterious cardboard box.

Then you walk away to a private corner where you can open the box. And what's in the box? A travel alarm clock and mini screwdriver set with a built-in USB dongle. Nice.

In college, my friend Joe discovered that some companies at career fairs reserved their ultra-premium swag, like sweatshirts, for those who were undeniably serious about the company. So he actually showed up in a suit and tie, and he passed out fake resumes to the booths of the best-funded companies. In many ways, Joe is a hero. In many other ways, Joe is a thief. I leave it to your judgment.

Exercise stealth.

What you're doing is … well, let's call it a moral gray area. Gleefully declaring, "And I don't even care about your company!" while you pocket a free day planner padfolio won't win you any friends. Scavenging swag is meant to be done furtively, without attracting attention, like farting in the cold-room, or making major changes to all users' privacy settings on Facebook.

I failed at this once. My first year of grad school, I snuck into a career fair on campus, knowing full well that I had no need of a career for the foreseeable future. I was in the exhibition hall for all of 5 minutes when a man approached me and said, "Excuse me. I'm a reporter for The Baltimore Sun, and I'm writing an article about the job market. Would you mind telling me what you're hoping to get out of the career fair today?" Stupidly, I told the truth, and the next day the Sun actually quoted me: " 'We're just here for the free T-shirts and free pens,' Ruben said. 'It takes the pressure off.' "

Oops.

If a booth is temporarily unstaffed, go insane.

Even booth reps need to go to the bathroom sometime. And when they do, it's your time to go freaking nuts on their freebies. Hey, a whole container of free magnets! Wow, the booth rep's lunch! Cool, a free multipanel fabric pop-up portable trade show stand!

Be a little selective.

Believe it or not, you don't need to take everything you can carry. If you do, the next morning you'll find yourself wracked with swag regret (swagret?), sobbing in a hotel bed surrounded by dozens of pencil toppers and cheap yo-yos that looked so attractive the night before.

The best swag is the stuff you'll actually use. Pen? Certainly. Chocolate? Always. Silicone wristband? What is this, 2004? Five-dollar gift card for coffee? Return to that booth throughout the day, each time with a different fake moustache.

Here's a quick miniguide to the best and worst swag:

Best:

  • Any kind of gift card
  • Anything you want to eat immediately
  • T-shirts, or anything else that can substitute for a day's worth of wear on an existing article of clothing
  • Bottle openers, or anything decently useful that would be more useful if you took several and put one in every room
  • Mugs and other drinking vessels
  • Little doodads that you can't put down, like little magnet toys
  • Pens
  • Plastic cups, because that's where the pens go

Worst:

  • Stress balls. The time for stress balls has come and gone. No one actually says, "Man, my experiments aren't going well, but after 20 minutes of gripping this squishy starfish, I'm in the freaking zone."
  • Lanyards. I find it odd that so many vendors choose to sink their promotional funding into a fashion accessory worn only by lifeguards and 11-year-olds at summer camp. The best use for lanyards, really, is cutting them in half to make shoelaces.
  • LED keychain flashlights. Wow, a flashlight that fits in my pocket! What's the catch? Oh, you have to keep squeezing it. And the light is really dim. And … now the nonremovable battery is dead.
  • Mousepads. You only need one of these. You already have one of these.
  • Brochures. Beware! These aren't swag! They're informational pamphlets designed to inform! If you end your swag-gathering session with a bag of brochures, the booth reps have already won.

If you think about it, the idea of swag is weird. Companies have to know that no one's co-workers are saying, "Hey, is that highlighter from AmpliSnarf Technologies? I'll bet they make one hell of a meso-scale plasmid purification kit. Let's buy three."

But direct sales aren't really the point of swag. Swag makes the otherwise daunting process of commerce a little more fun for everyone, and if while collecting goodies you happen to learn something about a company whose products may benefit you, all the better. After all, many companies have incredibly interesting products and oh my God, is that a six-piece, stainless steel folding Thermos?

Adam Ruben, Ph.D., is a practicing scientist and the author of Surviving Your Stupid, Stupid Decision to Go to Grad School.

10.1126/science.caredit.a1300083