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As corporate philanthropy and marketing stunts converge, who is actually benefiting?

Anand Giridharadas on stunts like Domino’s Pizza paving potholed roads: “I view them as cultural attempts to continue to eviscerate the idea of a commons and our biggest shared problems being solved together.”

As corporate philanthropy and marketing stunts converge, who is actually benefiting?
[Source images: Flickr user Amber & Eric Davila; azbota/iStock; andreusK/iStock]

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when the era of bizarre corporate do-gooding started. But in June 2018 it certainly went viral. That’s when Domino’s launched its “Paving for Pizza” campaign, which included video shot from inside one of its pizza boxes while a driver navigated all manner of terrible road conditions. The message: Poorly maintained roads aren’t just an inconvenience—they can devastate the deliciousness of your future pizza delivery.

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Domino’s marketing campaign had an added benefit of community improvement: It committed to fill potholes in 20 places around the country, to ensure smooth pizza rides. All residents in those places had to do was requested aid online, and the company would start contacting town or city officials. As Ad Week reported, well over a 100,00 people took action, while Bernie Sanders blasted the idea because it steamrolled over a more important discussion about why public infrastructure is failing in the first place.

We don’t need pizza companies to build roads. We need pizza companies to pay their workers enough.”

Anand Giridharadas

Regardless, Paving for Pizza has since expanded to all 50 states with Domino’s publicly mapping and branding their progress. Some roads are literally stamped with the company’s logo and the slogan, “Oh yes we did.” Fast-forward less than two years and these sorts of corporate philanthropy tactics are commonplace: Numerous companies have found ways to promote their product or service alongside some act that ostensibly boosts social welfare, often in places where the government used to carry the load.

Outdoorsy-themed Busch beer recently offered to plant 100 trees for every person who pilgrimaged to a pop-up shop in the middle of a national forest. Its cheap-beer brethren Keystone tackled the affordable housing crisis by giving free rent for a year to 13 customers who could prove their brand loyalty. Jimmy Johns offered a free house to someone suffering the indignity of not being within their delivery zones. Even Pornhub is in on the act: Its latest initiative encourages people to watch “dirty porn”—the joke being it’s a couple having sex on a polluted beach—to unlock a donation that funds related cleanup efforts.

Most of these actions have built-in limitations: caps on amount being raised or distributed per promotion. They’ll obviously fall short of paving every road—or, in the case of yet another beer company contest, even paying off a single person’s student loan debt, thanks to the relatively paltry prizes.

Anand Giridharadas, author of Winners Take All, a book exploring the failures of the philanthro-capitalism, has his own answer. “I view them as cultural attempts to continue to eviscerate the idea of a commons and our biggest shared problems being solved together through common institutions,” he says of such promotions. As Fast Company has reported, many corporate titans already view Giridharadas as a new muse, and are paying close attention to his condemnations.

Take the Domino’s campaign: “I’m sorry, but roads?” he says. “That’s a pretty open and shut case for government. We don’t need pizza companies to build roads. We need pizza companies to pay their workers enough, and pay their taxes.” Or Busch’s forest-fixing push: “We don’t need beer companies planting trees. I’d be much more curious about the environmental practices of their company.”

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Domino’s, in a statement, points to its more traditional philanthropy and says: “Our Paving for Pizza program was not actually something we considered a philanthropic endeavor, but instead a way to connect with local communities in a way that was meaningful to our customers . . . It was never meant as a replacement for local government infrastructure programs.” Other companies did not respond to Fast Company‘s request for comment.

In Giridharadas’s view, these campaigns create two huge hurdles for a healthy society. “One, [these companies] are trying to minorly defray—by philanthropic moonlighting—the negative things they do by operational daylight, and the philanthropic moonlighting stuff is often frankly on just a much smaller scale than the harm they admit into the society by operational daylight,” he says. “Point number two: They use the do-gooding to undermine the idea of solving these problems together. It’s not just like subsidizing a road. At some point, on some panel somewhere, [their road paving] will then be used to say it’s better to keep taxes low: ‘It’s better to have government not do a lot, that the private sector can step up.'”

Giridharadas doesn’t believe that latter is true at all. In fact, he has sees companies making socially dubious gestures nearly everywhere, all in attempt to polish a brand halo that other practices might tarnish. In September 2019, for instance, Lowes and the NFL’s Carolina Panthers teamed up to give a 12-year-old named Jaylin Clyburn, who’d spent all summer mowing laws to raise money for college, a special gift: a new lawnmower.

Realistically, a tuition check—still a small gesture for two huge organizations—would have done way more to lift Jaylin’s financial burden and give him more time to study. At the time, Giridharadas pointed out that this move also came on the heels of massive layoffs at Lowes. Thousands of people had recently lost their jobs without severance, which obviously imperils the chances of many more kids to pay for college.

I don’t think we’re going to Bono iPhone case our way to the Promised Land. ”

Anand Giridharadas

That feel-good lawn mower story dominated the news cycle and people’s social media feeds, though, while news of the layoffs did not. “From a public relations point of view, a cultural point of view, at the end of September, you may be known by the average American . . . as the company that gave a kid a lawnmower and nothing else,” he says.

Beyond philanthropy, the same sort of “smokescreen” happens in plenty of other seemingly positive corporate decisions, he says. For instance, fast-food restaurants have spent years acting more committed to bringing on healthier menu items. As the New York Times reported, however, the average nutrition value of many items on their menu has also dropped at the same time. “I don’t think we’re going to Toms shoes our way to the Promised Land. I don’t think we’re going to Bono iPhone case our way to the Promised Land. I don’t think we are going to Walgreens-donate-a-dollar our way to the Promised Land,” he says.

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That may not be how these companies view their actions at all. Many marketers arguably just copy what works elsewhere without much thought to the ripple effects of their actions. Either way, Giridharadas offers everyone some advice. “One of the signature questions asked by plutocrats and big companies in the age of capital is: ‘How can I do more good?’ And one of the most neglected questions, the question they really should be asking is: ‘How can I do less harm?'”

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About the author

Ben Paynter is a senior writer at Fast Company covering social impact, the future of philanthropy, and innovative food companies. His work has appeared in Wired, Bloomberg Businessweek, and the New York Times, among other places.

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