It’s a feature in almost every sport: the distribution of sponsor branded t-shirts from a projectile device at some point during the game. The shirts are far from fancy. They have the team logo on them and a sponsor’s logo. And they’re generally one-size fits all. But they are free, and they are only available to a small group of fans. Teams give them out to amp up the crowd; they may momentarily distract from a poor game or bolster fan frenzy during a good game. The use of a projectile cannon also adds to the sense of novelty and excitement—will the shirt reach me? Fans literally fall over themselves to obtain a shirt. There’s pushing and grabbing and scrabbling and maneuvering within the narrow confines of the seating rows—and many are not above yanking it from the hands of someone else. While some localized grumbling may occur if someone is very aggressive in obtaining a shirt, ultimately this person gets to keep his prize, and life goes on. But what is it about the free t-shirt launch that elicits this behavior in the first place? Why do we fight so hard for something so utterly generic?

We have a complicated relationship with free things. We want to stockpile them because we want to be like others, and if others are getting something, then we should too. But the very nature of free suggests that quality may be compromised given the value we place on paid production processes; and given this emphasis there's also some stigma attached to free things. Free carries a weight of  need and desperation that we don't always acknowledge publically as it implies that we may be lacking in other areas. For example, food insecurity impacts 42 million Americans, but many are hesitant to use available resources because of how they believe they will be perceived: lazy, dependent, and in some ways lacking self sufficiency due to a personal shortcoming. For example, are they unable to work because they can't or won’t, or lack the skills or intelligence to attain a respectable job? 

None of this may be the case, of course. People may need help for a variety of reasons and there have been many strides in destigmatizing food programs in particular. But t-shirts are not food items in that they're not so crucial to survival that we need to actively establish free access to them. While clothing poverty is a very real thing, in this particular instance, we’re looking at t-shirts that are distributed to a random sampling of fans who have already paid a (likely) hefty sum for a ticket, and who may have also spent a significant amount on concessions and souvenirs. In this case, we need to consider the biography of the object and the ways in which we author its commodification. Yes, the limited availability of these shirts contributes to the perceived value of acquiring one, but the ways in which we arrive at that value is deeply rooted in the social nature of exchange.

In the simplest sense, commodities are items with both use and exchange value; they are items that people are willing to trade with and for. The production of commodities is both a cultural and cognitive process. While not everything is a commodity, an item may be a commodity in one instance and not in another, or for one person and not another. This status is fueled by a moral economy that that operates behind the economy of visible transactions. 

Nothing is given or received without incurring a financial or social debt. We accept invitations to parties and dinners and outings with a subconscious understanding that we’re indebted to our hosts for their hospitality, and look to discharge that debt in the short term with a small gift or with a reciprocal invitation in the long term. There is an obligation to respond in ways that fully offset your debt. Your response should minimally match what you were offered—a dinner for a dinner—and if means allows, exceed it. This helps your status while causing participants to incur debt themselves.

This principle underlies the ways in which we gift, how and when we choose to help, and possibly even when we choose to answer the phone.This is why after work events for team building are regarded with suspicion. Yes, the company be hosting the event, but what’s required in turn? Late nights? A heavier workload? There really is no free lunch

Offsetting this debt is the fundamental principle of exchange. We offer money for an item and that item is ours. For example, we paid for a ticket, so we are free to enjoy the baseball game. We can spend more for the experience—better seats, but also on concessions and souvenirs—but then we expect something in return. It’s not rational but it exists because of the nature of contracts in general. We have established a custom of give and take.

In this cycle of exchange, if that item that we have paid for comes with additional things, it shifts the scales and the exchange is no longer even. We’re prompted based on this deeply ingrained sense of debt to give more. Retailers who offer “cash back” deals or in-store “cash” coupons that can only be redeemed at a future date are capitalizing on this mechanism of exchange. We’ve gotten something additional for our purchase as a thank you. But we’re also now in a position to come back to spend more to use that gift. Some food apps operate similarly. You acquire points for your purchase, so you are getting something for spending, but that something can only be redeemed for a product within the store. 

This is where free t-shirts—and other giveaways—come into play. They’re distributed for marketing reasons, but from a psychological perspective, we feel as if we are owed these shirts. We push and grab and scramble because it helps us feel as though we’ve gotten something for our troubles, and our expenses. We want that shirt because it makes us unique in the group of fans around us. On some level, we believe that getting that shirt helps justify our expenses. It's something for our troubles. But in acquiring that shirt, our debt is deeper. Having acquired a free souvenir, we may buy another snack or beverage—and feel good doing it because we’ve gotten something. It's a brilliant psychological play, when you think about it, because it prompts a general feeling of goodwill, and happy people will spend more to enjoy themselves.

It's true: not all that glitters is gold, and not all flying t-shirts are actually free.

What was the last giveaway item you snagged? Comments have been disabled on Anthropology in Practice, but you can always join the community on Facebook.


Kopytoff, Igor. "The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as Process." in The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective. Arjun Appadurai, ed. Cambridge: University Press, 2011. 

Mauss, Marcel (2000). The Gift. New York: WW Norton & Company, Inc.

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Image credit: Gary Shear