Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Adventures in Chicanthropy, or a Pound of Flash



As some of you know, I work as a photographer in a fairly large public art museum, one which was founded with public money as part of an implicit social contract which held that one of the requirements of a civilized society is a at least a modest provision of culture to its citizens. A dying sentiment, to be sure.

Today my place of work was besieged by employees of a Giant Corporation, to fulfill the yearly commitment by said Corporation of a "community service workday", in which employees put on gloves, pick up brooms and paint brushes, and do some hard labor on behalf of a needy/deserving organization. So they came this year to the museum, to spread mulch, paint bathrooms, clear brush, polish bannisters, wash windows, etc. Sounds great, right?

Except that we already have people who do that. Granted, as an underfunded state institution in a "balanced budget or else" state, such things don't get done as frequently as would be ideal, but still, it seemed a little weird for a bunch of white collars to come around to clean our toilets. It made me wonder about the utility and motivation of the project. And it didn't take long to figure it out.

The main reason is PR. Being able to promote itself as a "good corporate citizen". To project an image of caring and a willingness to "give back to the community". As with any business decision, however, corporate philanthropy is subject to the same cost/benefit calculus which demands that any action undertaken must yield more benefit than cost. What is played up by the PR department as altruism is really a very cheap and effective advertising buy. Here's how this particular game worked: By having its employees do labor, the company doesn't spend any cash, and to have 100 or so workers out for a day doesn't really affect long term productivity in any appreciable way. So the calculated value of the labor (assuming they weren't required to take unpaid leave), along with the nominal expense of materials gets entered in the "tax-deductible" ledger. But the real payoff comes when the local news stations show up to do the uplifting human interest story, or when the pictures by the hired photographer (not me) show up in the next annual report, video news release, or ad campaign.

This same sort of sketchy bullshit self-promotion masquerading as charity happens all the time where I work. An example: The very rich founder of a local software company offered to host a fundraiser for the museum at his fabulous estate, knowing that a big draw would be the insatiable curiousity of the lumpen for the lifestyles of the rich and fatuous. And it was fabulous: giant Out of Africa tents with parquet floors and antique furniture, floral arrangements costing roughly the same as a new Toyota, outdoor bathrooms housed in doublewide trailers with mahogony trim and attendants, glass dancefloor over the swimming pool, the full monty. But it was fraudulent as well: the whole shebang was the leftover getup from the previous day's wedding reception for Mr. Big's daughter. The museum got sloppy seconds in order to provide the rationale for a tax writeoff.

Another example: upscale restaurant chain offers to host--you guessed it--a fundraiser. A decent crowd in a passable venue, as yours truly was there to document. A few days later the chain--let's call them Shinola Steakhouse--arranges to present the proceeds to the museum. The museum stages a fairly elaborate photo-op to show the museum director engaged in an appreciative handshake with Mr. Shinola. So the day arrives and with it a shit-grinning Mr. Shinola carrying a fucking giant prop check like he was Ed McMahon stepping onto our front porch with the answer to our prayers. Except that this check was for a hair over $2500. An amount that in the real world wouldn't have paid for the photo shoot that we had constructed. Not to mention the fact that not a penny had come from the company's pockets. The money was the net take from ticket sales to patrons. To add insult to injury, in the following weeks I was instructed to provide, as a "courtesy", the museum's own images from the event to Shinola's PR firm. It is only my assumption that they were used for something other than snapshots for the company bulletin board. So let's review: for hosting a fundraiser, Shinola Steakhouse got a beautiful PR photo in the museum's magazine plus free unlimited PR usage from the museum's photography of the event, all for the price of a '92 Accord. With no money down. Brilliant.

And on and on and on. There is no shortage of such offers of largesse from the local captains of industry. For while we don't have enough money, we do have an enormous amount of cultural capital. To the business community, such cachet is in their eyes a seemingly endless vein of raw material to be converted into the lucrative dross of a branding campaign. But it is finite, and it dwindles all the more under each successive dollop of corporate "generosity".

EDIT: I don't mean to denigrate the good employees of Giant Corporation, who to a person were fun and nice and swell people genuinely committed to helping out.

4 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, my dear, you and I have to have a nice long talk. Hearing your perspective on all this is veeeery illustrative. I, of course, am the person on the other side, an employee of a Giant Corporation, and the view from over here is pretty bleak, too. Were I not sitting at my desk at Giant Corporation right now, preparing to make them a little more money, I would be cracking my knuckles and spending the next two hours comparing notes with you. (As it is, I'll have to save it for a more copacetic hour.)

Bakerina

9:25 AM  
Blogger goliard said...

i actually didn't already know that. thank you for the 'edification', being that i was curious about why you were using photoshop at work. i had actually assumed you were a social worker of some sort, being as open minded and democratic as you are n'all.

my little corporation does something similar, bringing groceries to employees (regardless of the 'why' of their being dead broke by tuesday), we provide bail money loans under certain (acceptable) circumstances. we talk down angry ex-wives and girlfriends in search of their child support cut of 'poor bastard's check. sometimes, i find, i have to put aside certain moral/ethical feelings in order to keep the money flowing...

6:14 AM  
Blogger Space Ghost said...

I wrote a similar rant recently comparing politics to applesauce. (homemade applesauce>storebought=independent politics>corporate owned politics) that makes sense, right?

9:50 PM  
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