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IRS Asks: Is Your Gift Bag Full of Saks or Wolf?

Hollywood and the IRS agree on one thing: Event gift bags and the swag that comes from being famous are out of control.

After the value of the Oscar and Emmy celebrity gift bags, which contained everything from jewelry to certificates for trips to exclusive resorts, topped $100,000, the IRS stepped in and said that such gifts are taxable.

Luckily for attendees at local events, some of that swag attitude is coming to DC galas and parties. Attendees at parties, book launches, and charity events are going home with more loot—although at most events the IRS isn’t going to bother looking into the gifts.

An event this summer celebrating the opening of Blue Duck Tavern came with gifts of bourbon-soaked peaches and a two-night stay at the renovated Park Hyatt Hotel. At a fundraiser for the Children’s Hospital cancer center, guests received Kiehl’s beauty products, a gift certificate to Georgetown Yoga, coupons from other local businesses, and a DVD of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events.

“It’s a trickle-down effect from Hollywood,” says Nycci Nellis, publisher of www.TheListAreYouOnIt.com. “The thought is ‘Let’s make people feel like movie stars, and they’ll have the warm fuzzies about our event or our product.’ It’s all PR.”

Nellis, who attends several events a week, got her favorite gift bag at a Candace Bushnell reading. The bag included makeup, shampoo, and Bushnell’s new book. “Most goodie bags are stuffed, but there’s not a lot of thought about what’s being put into it,” Nellis says.

Following the buzzed-about “gift suites” at the Sundance Film Festival—entire rooms where celebrities loaded up on high-end freebies—the swag trend arrived here in June when Mercedes-Benz sponsored a gift suite at the Ritz-Carlton in Georgetown following a screening of The Devil Wears Prada. Guests snagged Prada beauty samples, hair products, and gift certificates to local salons.

The product placement sometimes works. After getting a sample of Viktor & Rolf Flowerbomb perfume at a Saks Fifth Avenue event, Washington Post columnist Amy Argetsinger went back and bought the fragrance.

She says that local gifts are a far cry from what her friends got while she was working in the Post’s LA bureau. There a midweek screening of a movie might net a lavish sushi dinner, stuffed animals, and a pair of new leather Pumas.

But every so often DC guests are reminded that they’re not in Hollywood: The gift bag at one CNN event contained CNN logo items including a baseball cap emblazoned with the logo of Wolf Blitzer’s The Situation Room.

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Brian Bolter

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