It’s nearly the end of the first month of the Pepsi Refresh Everything contest and after a few weeks of vying for a $25,000 grant by pimping my organization through Facebook, e-newsletters and hastily written personal pleas I’ve got a bad taste in my mouth. Something like the aftertaste of swallowing too many virtual cans of high fructose corn syrup, caramel color, citric acid and other good ole chemicals. How’s that for refreshing?
Aaah, I can almost feel the phosphoric acid burning my tongue again.
For those of you who don’t know about the Refresh Everything contest, the presumed concept behind it is this: Regular advertising — ie. 30-second ads during the Super Bowl— is kind of tacky and wastes money that could otherwise be spent better — ie. supporting people and groups that are doing some good in the world. Since Pepsi figured it would also look hip and benevolent if it supported do-gooders, it teamed up with GOOD to devise a way to dole out cash.
But did you think Pepsi was just going to throw money at the world’s problems? No — to compete for grants of $5k, $25k, $50k, and $250k, hundreds of individuals and organizations submit proposals and then, more importantly, have to corrall as many people as possible to vote online for their projects. Can you advertise like you give a damn?
Throughout February these folks who obviously have better, more important things to do have been saying Pepsi, sending emails with Pepsi in their signatures just above their contact info, and listening to that freaking Pepsi can open each time they vote for Pepsi — I mean, when they vote for thoughtful, world-changing projects. People like myself who wouldn’t drink a Pepsi even if it were free, suddenly tried to convince friends to help spread the word. It’s not so bad! Just log in and post a Pepsi can to your Facebook page!
But it was that bad. Instead of Pepsi doing its advertising, paying for it, being honest about the transaction that occurs when a company advertises something, it did one worse than seductive marketing or product placement — it co-opted well-meaning folks to do its advertising and piggy-backed on good ideas it really had nothing to do with. The contest requires voters to submit their email addresses and birthdays — a log-in that’s not just tedious to deal with on a daily basis, but a reminder of how crudely Pepsi is measuring the outcome of its contest, not by the merit of the proposals but by the number of email addresses and website visits amassed.
But online voting is democratic! I can hear a Pepsi ad exec saying. Not really — according to our annual survey of Next American City readers, 100 percent of our readers voted in the last political election. Maybe 10 percent of these readers went to the polls for the Refresh Everything contest. It’s no surprise that the folks winning the contest are teams of youngsters, or those associated with large organizations like fraternities or the Army.
After a month of feeling sort of awkward about participating in this program, I’m left wondering why GOOD consulted on this project. I mean no harm, GOOD, I just want you guys to do what you set out to do — change the world, not change corporate advertising. Why actively participate in complicating the advertising process? Why help blur the boundaries between an advertising campaign and philanthropic support? I can’t help think that for all the money that Pepsi is giving away, it’s just creating a new problem that GOOD should be guarding against — not the all-too-common “greenwashing”, but “goodwashing.”
What could Pepsi have done instead?
One thought — how about engaging in the wildly contentious and exciting discussion about food, drink and sustenance? These are topics that Pepsi is intimately involved in. Instead of giving Teach for America (an $189-million budget organization) an extra $250,000, why not help those TFA teachers out, by supporting schools with fresh food? One of the biggest problems teachers face in educating students is their students’ lack of attention due to a lack of decent food. A government-paid free lunch costs just $2.57 — how many lunches would Refresh Everything’s entire campaign buy? Instead of sending Girl Scout cookies to troops in Iraq, why not use GOOD’s snappy graphics to create an online toolkit for students so they can learn more about the debilitating lifelong effects of childhood obesity and diabetes?
I’m not saying that the winners on the website aren’t worthy — they’re a pretty good, pretty diverse bunch of projects that Pepsi should be proud to support. But I can’t help feel like there was a missed opportunity to build Pepsi’s philanthropic legacy, to start a meaningful initiative that might have led the way for other corporations. The outcome of this project isn’t so bad, but it doesn’t quite justify the means.
Pepsi missed its chance to get smart, generous people to have a little faith in corporate philanthropy. It can revel in the fact that it got a lot of people to push its product, but it sure didn’t get our votes.