What Does It Mean to Give?
by John O’Keefe
I have a love/hate relationship with Christmas. I love all the family time, the excitement that comes with seeing people you may not have seen in years. I love that I am celebrating the birth of Christ and all that reality brings. But I hate all the focus on gifts, and all the accusatory commercials: if you don’t give someone this or that product, you truly do not care about that someone. Every December, with Christmas on the horizon, we get ourselves ready to spend silly money buying things that within a few months will be either broken or ignored. We buy toys for the kiddies, knowing full well that they’ll likely have more fun with the box than the toy itself. I get the economic reality of this time of year, but that does not mean I have to agree with it. When the California Lottery puts out a commercial telling us that “Scratchers make great gifts,” I’d say we have gone just a bit too far.
Nevertheless, I can kind of live with all that as I move along in life. But there is one thing, for some reason, that truly bugs the shit out of me: when companies claim to be giving back, while in reality we are the ones doing all the giving.
I was watching TV today, when a Chevy commercial came on talking about how they are “giving back” to the community. On the surface, that sounds cool: having made bank and paid out ridiculous salaries and bonuses to executives (probably while cutting workers’ salaries and benefits, but that is another article), a company wants to give back to the community. Who can fault that, right?
Well, not so fast. What Chevy and so many other companies do is to invite customers and others to bring food, toys, clothes, jackets and other items to the local dealer (or store); they then partner with a charity to distribute all the stuff to the needy. For example, at one grocery store near me, customers buy food at the store and put it in one of several collection bins to be later turned over to a shelter. But companies have always played games with how they “give.” One of the most known is the “If you buy our product, we will give $XX dollars to a charity.” The problem is, you have to buy their product; their “giving” is dependent on your buying. Is that giving?
I remember recently reading an article about companies that displayed a pink ribbon on their products but didn’t actually give any money to breast cancer charities. It turns out that the pink ribbon is not copyrighted, so any company can use it. Now, a company can sell their products and make a profit – no one can fault them for that – yet I have often wondered if the price of the product goes up to cover the cost of the contribution. Think about that: if a widget-maker says it will give $10 to a charity for every widget sold, and the price of the widget suddenly goes up $10, are they giving? It doesn’t cost them anything. They spend no money buying anything, they use their existing commercial space, and a separate charitable organization sends volunteers to pick up the items. The donated food comes from the grocery store’s customer, not the grocery store. People drop off the items at the Chevy dealership; Chevy has no real skin in the game. Others on both ends of the process are doing all the giving; the company itself is adding nothing.
Now, I will admit that the company might be thought to be offering a “service.” They may have the space where people can drop off items; they may be easy for people to get to; they may even be able to attract people who are able to give. But, even if all that is true, they are not “giving” – at best, they are collecting the gifts of others and claiming them as their own gift.
I think giving is important, but I am not sure collecting can be seen as giving. What do you think?