Vanity items. Those things we love to hate. Both vanity items and the Loyalty Programme seem to represent the new(ish) face of Jagex; the company using promotions as a way to get players to subscribe. Still, does that have to be a bad thing? They currently serve another purpose: rewarding players with cosmetic items that would not otherwise fit into the game.
I'm not going to pretend that the Loyalty Programme is perfect. If you're a relatively positive individual, it's a great concept with poor implementation - reward players for subscribing with cosmetic items (and a few of which aren't). The flaws, of course, are that while there are few 'bad' items, there are many that are overpriced. Vanity items, on the other hand, have more flaws than benefits. The concept isn't unique to RuneScape; many new games and subscription cards include unique bonuses depending on where you bought them. Unlike RuneScape's vanity items, most of them are useful (often enough to use throughout the game). Given the community's reaction to the Squeal of Fortune and the fact that many countries don't have RuneScape's game cards, it's probably for the best that Jagex didn't do the same.
Regardless of what players think of these two programs, the role they fill is the same as other 'status' items in the past - holiday items, treasure trail and random event rewards, and the like, though the method for obtaining them has shifted over time. It progressed from simple festive rewards for players that logged in during a certain window on to flashy items that are available to anyone who is lucky or wealthy enough to get them, and now we have a wide variety of items that any player can get, provided they maintain their membership for a long enough period.
Items like these have no purpose outside of the social part of the game - a part of the game that many older players say has been missing since the trade restrictions were first put into place. Unlike its predecessors, the Loyalty Programme allows Jagex a greater opportunity when it comes to designing these items. As a result, we have 14 sets with five potential colors each: too many for a player to be able to fill a set through random events or treasure trails, and that only includes the costumes sets.
The vanity items from game cards are a bit of a different story. Three of the last four items have been similar to holiday items - zombie-colored skin in October, a turkey hat in November, and an ice mask in December, but have been only available to new subscribers during those months through the purchase prepaid membership cards. The problem with this system is a problem that comes up in many discussions about downloadable content and similar bonuses in other games: the items could have easily been included in the game for all players. The other two items are an example of the bonus done well - the items are unique without being essential, they just aren't as widely available as they could be.
The Loyalty Programme and vanity items seem to be the next step in the way we get cosmetic items, and though the systems have their flaws, they require little more from players than holiday events do, aside from continued membership. To paraphrase Mass Effect 2, "If we're stuck here, we may as well let them pamper us."