NewsWire: Philip Morris' Evil Ring - The Chicago Sun-Times

A newspaper writer uses the One Ring as a metaphor in her campaign against the tobacco companies.

Philip Morris' evil Ring
by Cate Plys
Chicago Sun-Times

All politics is local, as the saying goes. In J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, for instance, the hobbits are amazed that the powerful magic Ring of the evil Sauron has ended up in their Shire.

I've been using the Ring as a metaphor for the current Philip Morris advertising campaign, where charities tout Philip Morris for its donations. Noble people are tempted to do good by using the Ring, but the Ring turns all it touches to evil. In our world, charities are tempted to promote their good works by appearing in Philip Morris ads--but the ads improve Philip Morris's shredded public image, helping it sell more cigarettes, which kill people.

Just as the Ring found its way to the Shire, the Philip Morris public relations campaign has found Chicago. Three prominent Chicago nonprofits are featured on the Philip Morris web site, an integral part of its P.R.: the Greater Chicago Food Depository, Friends of the Chicago River, and the Museum of Contemporary Art.

The Food Depository also participates in the ubiquitous ads starring charities, and Philip Morris runs print ads for the annual MCA performance series it sponsors.

The reasons given in the nonprofit world for ignoring the damage done by the tobacco industry are complex-see my previous columns starting Feb. 2 on this web site for more details. It only gets more complicated when you talk to the individual nonprofits.

The Food Depository receives most Philip Morris support via Kraft Foods, a subsidiary headquartered in Chicago. Kraft donates vast amounts of food, helping the Depository feed about 300,000 people a month through food pantries and other agencies. I spent a fascinating morning at the Depository recently, amazed by the staff's dedication and the operation itself-picture the warehouse at the end of "Indiana Jones and the Lost Ark".

Friends of the Chicago River is also rather inextricably linked to Kraft. Kraft is on the group's board of directors, and its headquarters is on the river. As executive director Laurene von Klan explained, her group brings together "a lot of constituencies to improve the river, and businesses happen to be major players on the river...Kraft is looking at doing a river bank restoration project."

All three groups mentioned Philip Morris's longtime donations to their issues-hunger, clean water and the arts-as reasons for their association with Philip Morris. "We consider them partners in their support of the arts," said Warren Davis, MCA's manager of corporate relations. The Food Depository and Friends of the Chicago River also emphasize that their support comes mainly from Kraft, not Philip Morris.

This translates into two notions: that it's all right to help Philip Morris's P.R. efforts because Philip Morris's donations and advertising campaign are selfless acts of charity, and that there is an actual difference between Philip Morris and its subsidiaries. I don't doubt the three groups' sincerity, but unfortunately, neither idea is true.

Even Philip Morris doesn't pretend that its ad campaign's purpose is to publicize worthy charities. The campaign is meant to tell "the broader story of who Philip Morris is," said Karen Brosius, director of corporate affairs. "We're more than a tobacco company. We're Kraft, Miller Brewing, and the ads I think really go to the core of that key message for us....We think it's really important that that's first and foremost. But also share the story of our long term commitment to these [nonprofit] organizations."

You can't separate Philip Morris from its subsidiaries, then. Philip Morris's whole strategy, as Brosius explained, is to implant the idea that Philip Morris is its subsidiaries. The ads were created to make people associate Philip Morris with things like Kraft Macaroni & Cheese instead of cigarettes.

That's why INFACT, a nonprofit organization working for corporate accountability, started a Kraft boycott in 1998. INFACT is currently promoting its documentary, "Making a Killing: Philip Morris, Kraft and Global Tobacco Addiction." The film features U.S. Rep. Lyle Doggett of Texas, who says that Philip Morris uses Kraft to buy political influence by giving money through Kraft to politicians who don't want to be seen taking tobacco funding.

And Philip Morris's subsidiaries also help the company in a more obvious way. In October, business reports said Philip Morris experienced its best earnings since before the tobacco settlement, and only partially due to increased cigarette sales. According to The New York Times, Philip Morris "benefits greatly from its Kraft Foods division, which represents about a quarter of its operating income. In the third quarter, profit at Kraft Foods North America rose 7 percent, to $827 million, while sales rose 2.5%, to $4.28 billion."

All three Chicago organizations assured me they've fully considered the issue of allowing themselves to be used in Philip Morris's publicity. "We just decided that if we're going to accept funding, we can't tell them 'Don't tell anybody about it,"' said River executive director von Klan, since other foundations are allowed to announce their donations to the group.

"A lot of time was spent on this," said the MCA's Davis. "As a museum, we don't censor the content, or our funders."

"Our issue here is to provide food for hungry people," said the Depository's director of communications, Barbara Whicker. "We're not in a position to judge the morality or ethics of the company. To us what they're doing is a very moral act."

Philip Morris is "very good at deceiving the people in the nonprofit organizations whom they have enlisted as partners in this ad venture," said George Balch, visiting associate professor of marketing and public health at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and principal of Balch Associates, a consulting group. "I strongly doubt [nonprofits] grasp the magnitude, the extent to which they're being used. It's hard to recognize if you're in an organization doing wonderful, useful things and someone approaches and says, 'We like what you're doing and want you to do more, we'd like to have a partnership.' One tends to look for the best."

But Lauri Alpern, associate director of the Great Cities Institute at UIC, doesn't believe nonprofits are powerless. Most grants are applied for, so groups can choose not to apply to Philip Morris. Nonprofits can also choose whether donors can use the group's name for publicity, from web sites to advertising, Alpern pointed out. "I think they have a lot of power to define the relationship," she said.

Philip Morris spokespeople confirmed that charities come to them and apply for grants, and that no group is even listed on the Philip Morris web site without explicit, signed consent. According to both Philip Morris and the three Chicago nonprofits, the grants aren't tied to a group's participation in publicity materials. Philip Morris also said that other charities are clamoring to be featured in any new commercials.

So why not take Philip Morris at its word? Accept its donations, scrap the public relations campaign. In Lord of the Rings, the Ring is ultimately destroyed and Sauron vanquished. The real world may not be as nice and neat, but at least no one needs a magic ring to help write a happy ending to the story of tobacco.

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