Sponsored Weddings: Tacky or Savvy?

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photo: chris jd

When Carrie Fisher and Dave Kerpen tied the knot in 2006, they envisioned a big wedding but didn’t have the budget to match. So they got creative. Avid baseball fans, the Kerpens used their marketing savvy to wrangle everything from the venue (a minor league baseball park in Brooklyn) to the flowers (provided by 1-800-flowers.com) – for free. 

The result: a $100,000 dream wedding, brought to you by 25 sponsors.

Carrie Kerpen admits that family members were initially terrified that the couple would be made fun of or humiliated. “But honestly, every single person who was there saw two people who loved each other, exchanging vows at home plate and incorporating sponsors in a natural, non-intrusive way, since the ceremony was sponsor-free,” she says.

While some wedding experts say sponsored weddings are tacky, Kerpen points out that it is irresponsible “to dump massive amounts of money that you don’t have on a wedding.”

The average US wedding cost almost $20,000 in 2009, according to The Wedding Report, which compiles data and research on the wedding industry. And with elaborate celebrity weddings — often sponsored — pushing expectations sky-high, cash-strapped couples may feel tempted to secure a line-up of vendors willing to sponsor the big event in exchange for brand or product placement.

In fact, many have done it already. In 2008, one bride auctioned a bridesmaid spot on eBay (Dr. Pepper Snapple Group won the auction and also provided beverages for the reception). Another created a blog called Help Me Pay For My Wedding!, where she asks readers to contribute to her wedding fund via PayPal.

But don’t sponsored weddings and other gimmicks cheapen the experience?

Yes, according to Celia Milton, a New Jersey-based wedding officiant who says this phenomenon comes up more often among her wedding colleagues. “There is no situation in which this is appropriate,” she says. “It is, after all, a moment of history in two families’ lives; not a commercial break. If they cannot afford to have 200 guests at an expensive venue, they should invite 50 people and create a more realistic situation.”

There are plenty of ways to plan a tasteful wedding on any budget. For instance, asking a musical friend to play during the ceremony, assembling your invitations with help from the bridal party, using potted plants instead of expensive floral arrangements, or making your own wedding favors.

“Both the idea of a ’sponsored’ wedding and trying to get friends and family to pay for your wedding miss the larger point,” says Marta Segal Block, a columnist for the wedding site OneWed.com. “Having the wedding you can afford takes communication and compromise, both skills that you’ll need in your married life. Even if you can get someone (a relative or a company) to sponsor your wedding, how will you afford your life?”

On the other end of this argument are experts like destination wedding coordinator Candy Cain, who secured sponsored items for a few of the weddings she’s planned. “All I have to do is shoot an email out and ask,” she says. As long as the engaged couple has veto power over the sponsored items, Cain doesn’t have a problem with it.

In exchange for free favors, flowers, invitations, or other items, Cain says the vendor gets their information printed in the wedding program or has someone make an announcement so guests know where the items came from. “The word of mouth that comes from weddings is pretty extraordinary,” she says.

Still, Kerpen points out that that the relationship should take center stage. “Whether you have a Vera Wang gown or a toilet paper gown, the love is what you take with you and remember from your wedding day.”

To avoid the over-the-top, self-centered “Star Jones” factor, the Kerpens decided to raise money for charity while celebrating their big day. “So many sponsors wanted to be involved so we knew we could leverage their partnerships for charity money,” she explains.

The couple donated $20,000 to the David Wright Foundation, founded by the New York Mets baseball player to support children and families in need, with an emphasis on those suffering from Multiple Sclerosis: a disease that Kerpen’s mother has suffered from for years. “That was the best part,” Kerpen says.

Susan Johnston is a Boston-based freelance writer who covers business and lifestyle topics.

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