Here's the pitch

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Tide. Scope. Pepto-Bismol. Look, a CD for a free trial of America Online! There is a slew of goodies in the purple plastic bags currently being distributed by the Orange County Clerk of the Courts to any couple who pays the fee for a marriage license. That comes out to only $88.50 per gift bag.

The bags are relatively innocuous, but they do prompt the question: Should the government be distributing brand-name laundry detergent and antacid?

Technically, the government does not distribute the stuff (just hands it out). Distribution is the job of a company called First Moments, a subsidiary of The Parenting Group, which in turn is owned by behemoth AOL TimeWarner. First Moments doles out about 1.5-million of its gift bags every year. Visit just about any county clerk's office throughout the country and you're likely to find presents from First Moments.

The sacks are filled mostly with Proctor & Gamble products, the company that asked for such a giveaway to be developed. According to Georgia Galanoudis, executive director of First Moments, the program does not amount to a government endorsement of specific products. It's a voluntary program, she said, and does not cost taxpayers any money.

"It's about getting products into the hands of consumers," Galanoudis said. "And the county clerks enjoy giving something away."

Wendy Kurtz, a spokesperson for the Orange County Clerk of the Courts, said, "It is nice that people have something more than just a payment receipt to take home with them after they apply for their marriage license. ... This is something that a company provided for us. They just gave it to us. We did not solicit their products."

Still, it's not entirely clear who benefits most from the program -- the brides- and grooms-to-be or the makers of mouthwash. The Orange County office gives away about 1,000 bags per month. And here's the rub: First Moments does not pay a dime to the county to have its officials dispense all those bags to all those people.

Marketing companies are always looking for cheaper and more creative ways to get their messages out -- particularly in light of the economic slowdown which has slashed budgets for marketing by 15 percent in some areas. In many of today's schemes, consumers have little or no idea that they're participating in a major marketing campaign.

Consider the following:

  • In most major bookstores, the selections most prominent at the front of the shop are placed there because the publisher has paid for the privilege. also subscribes to this practice, charging over $12,000 to feature a book on its main books page.
  • On a number of college campuses, credit-card companies are recruiting "student ambassadors." Such companies as First USA, the largest distributor of Visa and MasterCard in the United States, pay the students' tuition (and sometimes more). In exchange, the young ambassadors encourage their peers to engage in "responsible financial planning." Presumably, that includes filling out applications for the company's credit cards.
  • "Buzz marketing" has become a popular and often subtle vehicle for advertising. According to William Sharp, a professor at Emory University's Goizueta Business School in Atlanta, manufacturers hire influential people in a community to get their friends and associates interested in a product. A company that sells scooters, for example, hires good-looking college students to befriend people their age. At the end of a social get-together, Sharp says, "These representatives give their new Ã?friend' an invitation to look at scooters at a nearby store."

In one barometer of how deeply marketing ploys are making their mark on everyday life, a New York couple announced last month that it would auction off the right to name its unborn child -- for a minimum bid of $500,000. Billed as a "corporate marketing opportunity," the auction didn't garner any bids, most likely because it was quickly removed from eBay Yahoo! It's not that the auction houses were concerned for the welfare of the baby, but rather they don't allow the same "product" to be auctioned simultaneously on two competing.websites.

As clever as companies are at marketing their products, there is still no accurate way to measure the effectiveness of most advertising. That's largely because of a unique human mental ability to turn on and off things that interest (or disinterest) us, according to Sharp. For example, someone shopping the aisles at a supermarket may only notice the piped-in music if he hears a song he or she likes, says Sharp.

At the Orange County marriage-license office, Carla Stephens and Will Valdes said they probably would not run to the supermarket to buy Tide, even after having received a complimentary sample in their First Moments bag.

"I think it `the bag` is kinda cute and I might save it as our first gift as a married couple," Stephens said. "It'd be nice if they gave us mementos or something, though, like maybe a key chain."

Others echoed the idea that detergent was not the most appropriate gift idea for the occasion.

"Not much use for it, really," said a woman who declined to give her name. "I was actually wondering if it might be contraception."

Alas, a representative of the Osceola County Clerk of the Courts, which also participates in the gift-bag program, said it would be much too controversial to distribute contraceptives -- even if a company was offering them free of charge.

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