A swag queen confesses

I stood with dozens of others around the small man behind the fortress of stacked boxes labeled Old Spice.

As he tossed a flurry of fluffy brown balls into the air, outstretched hands lucky enough to catch one would retract from the mob of raised arms, and the crowd would thin a little more.

Charlotte Motor Speedway was filled with at least a hundred display booths before the race that day, and Old Spice quickly became one of the popular ones, handing out bath poufs shaped like Ricky Bobby from the then newly released racing film "Talladega Nights."

When they ran out of poufs, like ducks feeding off bread, fans abandoned the man and quickly moved on to find the next handout.

I know because I was one of them. I've always been fascinated with the odd assortment of promotional items, or swag, tossed out to spectators at sporting events.

What you're about to hear is the confession of a swag queen.

When the Old Spice marketing department gets together for meetings with their charts and graphs, I'm sure a 38-year-old mother of two girls does not figure into their target demographic.

But there I was, vying for a frizzy brown-haired pouf among middle-aged men and twentysomethings.

I grew up in New York during the 1980s, not exactly a Depression era. This was the decade when teenagers started wearing designer labels on the outside of their clothing.

I have never slipped packets of sugar into my purse at restaurants.

But for some reason, swag gets my attention. And no one knows swag like the promoters at racing events, when they turn the outskirts of the track into a circus of tents, each one doling out freebies in the hopes that next time you're at the grocery store, you'll shell out your own money to buy their products.

Spin the wheel. Take a chance. Win an egg timer shaped like a blueberry muffin, sponsored by Martha White baking products.

And it works. According to a study from L.J. Market Research in 2004, 52% of participants who received a promotional product from an advertiser went on to do business with them.

Sweet Baby Ray's BBQ sauce, Smirnoff Raspberry vodka, even ShamWow got my business later after first trying them at sporting events.

And the samples are never small. I did not ask for 33 bottles of Men's Suave shampoo. The booth worker just slid her arm across the display counter and toppled rows of bottles into a bag she then handed to me.

A friend recalls the case of Goody's orange flavor headache powders another booth gave her.

Two hundred individual packets come in a case. She hasn't had a headache for long in years.

Like a bee pollinating flower after flower, I pick up even items I don't use and give them to people I think might.

My mom gets the Scotch Fur Fighter for her schnauzers. Teachers get the Post-it notes and rolls of Scotch tape. Others, like batteries and razors, become stocking stuffers.

Anyone ready to kick the habit is welcome to my samples of Nicorette gum.

For me, swag is a habit I haven't been able to break.

On a recent race day, when the sun went down and the distant rumblings of drag cars ceased, I listened as my husband's Jeep pulled into our driveway.

He was greeted at the door by the familiar dance and chorus of our daughters: "Dad, what did you bring home?"

Out of one pocket he pulled a green stuffed gecko. The other, a small blinking pink flashlight. They squealed, thanked him, and scurried away.

They are their mother's daughters.