Philanthropy Or Reputation Laundering?

Philanthropy, CSR, and purposeful communication have at least one goal in common: to do well by consumers who, directly or indirectly, are being addressed. But is it always so? Through the analysis of the communication that the companies Purdue Pharma, British Petroleum have adopted, we will try to understand whether there is a virtual limit beyond which not only the “purposeful” campaigns (guided by a “high” purpose’) are no longer effective for companies that adopt them but whether they are also potentially harmful to consumers.

In 2018 the Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan, New York, was at the center of a protest against its financing by the Sackler family, the head of Purdue Pharma, which markets OxyContin. A few days afterwards, Columbia University and the University of Washington, which have both received donations from the Sacklers in the past, announced that they will no longer accept grants from the family.

What is behind this protest?

The American photographer Nan Goldin, who claimed to have become addicted to OxyContin after the pills were prescribed, lead the protest along with other artists and activists against the campaigns of cultural philanthropy, claiming that accepting funding from owners from similar companies makes cultural institutions accomplices of their damage.

The eight members of the Sackler family were accused of intentionally minimizing the dangers of taking OxyContin painkillers (seemingly more potent than heroin or morphine) and deceiving doctors into prescribing excessive doses for many patients who would never have had to take the drug. OxyContin is now considered co-responsible for the opioid crisis that is killing more than 100 people a day in America and has generated millions of addicts.

In September 2019, to freeze the lawsuits against them, the drug maker  filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

Opioids are not the only epidemic devastating America, despite the U.S. being one of the highest economically performing countries today. “By most accounts, Americans should be happier now than ever,” writes Jean M. Twenge, co-author Of the Report ‘World Happiness,’ published March 20, 2019, which monitors the level of happiness of the citizens of 156 countries in the world. “The violent crime rate is low, as is the unemployment rate. Income per capita has steadily grown over the last few decades. ” Yet Americans are sad.

Jeffrey D. Sachs, director of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), Director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University, and co-author of the report, explained in these terms the phenomenon:

My argument is that the U.S. is suffering an epidemic of addictions, and that these addictions are leaving a rising Portion of American society unhappy and a rising number clinically lonely.

The fact that the Guggenheim Museum and other cultural institutions have accepted the subsidies of Purdue Pharma under the guise of a philanthropic action with the twofold aim of “bringing the general public closer” and diverting attention from their responsibilities, with an effect of “reputation laundering “[3] , is cause for concern.

Activists @British Museum against BP sponsorship

This of the Guggenheim is not an isolated case. Many will remember the long-standing partnership between British Museum And British Petroleum, which frequently was the subject of a protest. Last time at the center of the controversy was the exhibition “I Am Ashurbanipal,” with the protesters claimed to have been taken from contemporary Iraq during the Ottoman era. The banners of the event said “colonialism crisis” and “stolen items.” So for BP the philanthropic sponsorship of the British Museum has become a constant cause for concern.

And even more worrying is the (unconscious?) intercession an institution such as the British Museum or the Guggenheim are pushed to do to get the funds to survive. I get to ask if the price they apply is worth the game. And if it is acceptable to the Government that culture remains alive thanks to the ‘soul washing’ or ‘reputation laundering’.

Unfortunately, it seems no one can feel immune to some form of addiction (hence the term epidemic used by the author of Report World Happiness Jeffrey D. Sachs). And from this perception to the  salience and relevance of the subject.

A question arises: the basis of the purposeful communication or goodvertising (advertising that does goodwhether developed through actions of philanthropy or CSR ) shouldn’t be a code of ethics?

Article written in collaboration with Stefano Serafinelli, clinical Psychologist, mindfulness intervention trainer.

Foto: Nan Goldin Aperture Drugs On The Rug New York City


[3] “There’s the question about whether Yale or any other university wants to be complicit in the reputation laundering of the donor. And at the very minimum there is that negative to put on the ledger of whatever good could be done with the gift.” Rob Reich, professor of ethics, Stanford University

Since you’re here…
Our mission is to monitor Advertising to make certain that companies obey ethical standards of trustworthiness and transparency while communicating their commitment to addressing the great challenges of the New Millennium. From climate emergency to social inequality through all the issues included in the Sustainable Development Goals Agenda, we monitor the consistency of their statements, if they are ‘walking the talk’. With rising misinformation and commercial ownership, independent information is more and more rare. We think citizens deserve access to accurate analyses with integrity at their heart, so we can all make critical decisions about our lives, health and enviroment – based on fact, not fiction.
Our editorial independence means our content agenda is set only to voice our opinions, supported by in-depth research, free from any political and commercial bias, never influenced by interested owners or shareholders (which we don’t have). It means we can stand up to mainstream and give a voice to those less heard. We hope this will motivate you to make a contribution in support of our open, independent journalism. Every reader contribution, however big or small, is so valuable. Support BeIntelligent from as little as €5 – and it only takes a minute. Thank you.

Support BeIntellgent

Author: elena grinta

I have been dealing with communication for 20 years, I have worked in marketing for large international and Italian companies and I know the mechanisms of advertising persuasion. I decided to invest my know-how and my skills to use the available resources of companies (budgets but also human capital) in positive transformation. Because to students from all over the world I teach at Purpose Brands in Catholic University I wish to give more and more examples of virtuous companies that have invested for the future, of everyone (and there are already many!). Because if we watch, without acting, without taking responsibility, we have no excuse.

Purposeful Communication / Trends