The penthouse of the 1 Hotel West Hollywood is covered in mushroom and marijuana inspired florals, candles are burning, and the coffee table is draped with a tie-dye blanket covered in dozens of products you’ve likely seen all over your Instagram feed. It’s all for the fifth edition of a curated gifting experience called Air Milkshake: over the course of four days, artists, models, designers, and yes, people with hundreds of thousands of followers, will pop up to the suite for a private appointment where they’ll be introduced to over 30 brands. The offerings run the gamut from natural laundry detergent to emergency contraception, swimwear, and a wearable blanket. Everything smells good, everything is cute, and everything is free.
Air Milkshake is the brainchild of Marta Mae Freedman, a 32-year-old Los Angeles based creative entrepreneur who has done everything from working in-house at Depop, co-creating the cannabis newsletter Nice Paper and co-founding the cult skincare label Dieux. Freedman understands brands, and she uses that expertise to pull off creating the bespoke Air Milkshake gifting experience for over 100 influencers—or creators, as she’s moved to calling them—twice a year. (Air Milkshake started as a silly nickname for Freedman’s favorite oat milk draft latte at La Colombe that she then used to name her LLC and is currently in the process of copyrighting). You could say the event is Freedman’s passion project, but gifting is also a booming business, where brands in addition to contributing products, pay serious money just to be involved (Freedman declined to disclose the exact amount).
Before launching the gifting suite in summer 2021, Freedman had experience connecting her network of fabulous girlfriends with brands. “I’m such a big relationship person, I think being a connector is one of my gifts,” she says over coffee at Soho Warehouse. (While writing this article, she also insisted I experience the suite as a guest.) Her network is full of female-owned brands, too. She hit home runs executing gifting strategies for her friends’ then direct-to-consumer brands Parade underwear and Starface pimple patches (both have since exploded and are now available at Target). If you see an independent brand suddenly become ubiquitous (think Fly by Jing Chili Crisp or Hill House’s Nap Dress), she’s probably involved.
The gifting suite isn’t necessarily a new concept; star studded events typically have a corner filled with grab bags of expensive products for celebs to take home. One at the Oscars is rumored to contain upwards of $30,000 worth of swag. But Freedman’s highly personal approach to choosing both brands and influencers stands out from the gift bags left under the seats at red carpet events. From the outside, the offerings may seem random. Activewear sits next to girly dresses, eyelash serum next to green juice gummies. Some brands are tiny, others international chains, some retail for under $20, others over $200. The only requirement to be included is Freedman’s cosign. Everyone involved has to trust her.
Logistically, she ensures there are no overlapping product types and gives consideration to both brand packaging style and sustainability efforts. She aims to highlight female and minority-owned brands, like Ourside perfume and Ceremonia, hair care, alongside big names like Vans and Tillys. Not everyone makes the cut. The quality of the products is what keeps her audience begging to be invited back and therefore, incentivized to post and share.
On her podcast Unhinged with Amrit, DJ and music consultant Amrit Tietz called Air Milkshake the “Oscars of gifting suites.” An invite is a status symbol, and creators show loyalty and boast affiliation by tagging Air Milkshake as often as they tag the brands. But instead of inviting mainstream celebrities or the homogenous group of influencers with the same mega followings she saw at other influencer events, Freedman decided to hand pick each attendee, focusing on “creative entrepreneurs,” many with businesses outside of content creation. Guests at this year’s spring suite include fashion designer Rachael “Steak” Finley, podcaster Noor Elkhaldi, manicurist Steph Stone and model Yaris Sanchez.
Unlike traditional influencer seeding, where a consultant or publicist provides a brand with a list of creators to fit their desired demographics (Freedman does this too), the Air Milkshake guest list is entirely at her discretion. Brands have no say in who comes and every guest gets every gift—no sad rack for those with lower follower counts. Some attendees have followings as low as 5,000.
All around us, the free shit economy seems to be booming. Showing off gifted products has moved from taboo to a flex. Everyday people tag products they’ve purchased, hoping to get reposted and maybe one day gifted. Because of the abundance of free promotional posts, the value of low effort, inauthentic content from influencers has become nearly meaningless. Audiences, especially Gen-Z, are wary of being blatantly advertised to. Any brand can manually send hundreds of direct messages per day collecting addresses to send free products and get varying results. For many brands, Air Milkshake’s fee is worth it for the curated selection of guests alone. As brands struggle to reach that ever elusive target of authenticity in an overly saturated market, having the right person make what feels like an organic recommendation is priceless advertising. Out of the 31 brands in the spring suite, nine are returning.
Lawmakers have hastened to keep up with this new form of product placement. In the United States, laws regarding disclosure of endorsements are regulated by the Federal Trade Commission, and when it comes to acknowledging gifted products in unpaid, non-contracted posts, things can get murky. Discerning audiences may be able to tell when a product is gifted, but it’s not unrealistic to anticipate a #gifted disclosure being required in the future, much like the #ad hashtags celebrities like the Kardashians have been fined for not using. At a gifting suite like Air Milkshake, guests are expected but not required to post about their haul.
“Not everything is for everyone, we know that,” Freedman says. “If I give you a bag of 30 brands, you're not going to love everything. You're not going to make 30 posts, but there's a chance you’ll love maybe half of it and want to share over the next few months. I still see posts everyday from the suite in August 2022.”
What Freedman is after is more of a slow burn. Air Milkshake attendees are given no hashtags, no discount codes, no links. For some brands, the value may be intangible, measured in vibes, not spreadsheets. It can benefit a brand to align themselves with unexpected creators whose social media posts aren’t clogged with three ads a week. Freedman confesses there’s always at least one guest who doesn’t post at all. They don’t get invited back.
“Participants can always expect thoughtful, surprising content from Air Milkshake guests—never your run-of-the-mill unboxing,” says Freedman’s friend Julie Schott, founder of Starface, Futurewise, and Plus. Her latest brand, a morning after pill called Julie, was featured in the spring suite.
At the Air Milkshake suite at 1 Hotel, no detail is forgotten. There are pink milkshake centerpieces that complement the laminated, diner-style menus describing each brand. It’s easy to imagine Freedman taking the project to the next level. Her goal is to curate experiences for the rest of us, things like hotel mini bars filled with the best new products. Currently, those lucky enough to be invited to Air Milkshake walk away with a 30 pound tote of products only a master Tetris player could pack. Items they selected from sample racks will arrive in their size in the coming weeks. It would make for a massive unboxing haul video, but Air Milkshake “angels,” as Freedman calls them, know better than to post something as obvious as that.