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Joy of Giving No Easy Task, Full of Risks

December 24, 1987|MARTHA L. WILLMAN | Times Staff Writer

Every year at Christmas, hundreds of local corporations distribute holiday gifts to executives and business associates.

At Unocal Corp. in Los Angeles, it is a traditional silk tie.

From Forest Lawn in Glendale come handsome desk diaries.

The hottest corporate gift idea in Los Angeles this year, according to Idea Man, a local specialty advertising firm, is a matchbook-size calculator that literally looks like a matchbook. At only $5 apiece, the miniature calculator, imprinted with a company message, is a handy stocking stuffer for employees.

Electronic Memory

Another popular item is an electronic memory device that stores names and telephone numbers, said Gerald B. Speen, president of Creative Gift Services of Van Nuys. Yet Speen admitted that the gadgets serve no more purpose than a pocket phone book. "The practicality of it escapes me, but that's OK, everybody wants them," he said.

Many of the corporate gifts carry subtle messages.

Unocal's ties, for example, feature symbols woven into a pattern denoting high points in the oil company's year, such as a new coal project in Canada or the opening of a research center. This year's symbol will remain a corporate secret until the gifts are opened.

Forest Lawn one year sent out alarm clock-calculators that strongly resembled a half-open casket when in use. Mortuary officials strongly deny any pun was intended. "It never even occurred to anyone," said a company spokesman who nonetheless conceded the similarity. "That really would be a bit beyond us."

But symbolic or not, business executives say selecting the right gift is no easy task.

Sunkist Opts for Notebook

A three-member team at Sunkist Growers Inc. in Sherman Oaks pored over dozens of catalogues and sales samples for weeks before they settled on a vinyl notebook portfolio with an oversized calculator.

The portfolios, imprinted with an orange stripe and the company's logo, are being distributed to 350 clients and business associates--along with boxes of oranges, naturally.

"We wanted to give an item that reminds the recipient of Sunkist all year long," said Linda Shepler, manager of Sunkist's Consumer Response Center and a member of the selection committee. In past years, the company has distributed sets of glasses and stadium blankets, also personalized with the company name.

Many companies have several levels of managers who make gift-giving decisions. At Glendale Federal, each department head decides what types of gifts should be distributed and who gets them, a company spokeswoman said. Food baskets and candy are popular this year, the official said.

Advertising specialists also acknowledge that many companies have A-B-C-D lists, allocating different gifts at different price levels, depending on the employee's rank in the company or the client's importance. In doing this, however, Speen said companies "run a risk" of upsetting someone who learns he received a less valuable gift.

Because many officials at a company send gifts to associates, the presents and the recipients do not always seem logical. Glendale Mayor Ginger Bremberg traditionally receives a poinsettia plant from Forest Lawn, while a honey-baked ham typically is sent to Los Angeles Councilwoman Joy Picus, who is Jewish and gives the ham away.

Although she conceded to being a bit miffed by her apparent position on the A through D list of the hometown mortuary, Bremberg said, "I love my poinsettia plant and look forward to receiving it every year."

Despite the risks, corporate gift-giving has been a tradition in America for well over a hundred years, according to the Specialty Advertising Assn. International of Irving, Tex., which represents 3,900 specialty firms, including 300 in California.

Specialty Advertising

During the last decade or so, more and more corporations and businesses have turned to specialty advertising firms to help them choose the latest in promotional gifts.

"Things have changed over the years," said Todd Singleton of the H. W. Singleton Co. Inc., a Westwood speciality advertising firm founded in 1926. "You can't just stamp your name on a burlap sack or a calendar. Gifts must be useful, tangible and valuable to the recipient."

They also should last.

"What has happened is that the quality of gifts has increased," said Bob Waldorf, president of Idea Man. "Companies want something with durability. They have been flooded over the years with items that don't work well or don't work long."

Most important, gifts should be items that will be used repeatedly, thus serving as a constant reminder of a company's good will, specialists say.

They also admit that the idea of presenting corporate gifts is rooted in commercialism.

"Most of the gifts that we supply are a vehicle for advertising as well as to say thank you," Waldorf said. Speen at Creative Gift Services put it more bluntly. "It may not sound much like the spirit of Christmas, but the fact is that companies operate with the bottom line in mind," he said.

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