For many decades the world's largest tobacco company, Phillip Morris, has been a generous contributor to arts and charities in need of money. And yet a recent survey suggests Philip Morris is a reviled corporation.
Philip Morris quite literally helped put a roof over Donna Spence's homeless shelter for teens.
Three years ago, when the Crossroads Shelter in East Lansing, Mich., was nearly broke, Philip Morris donated $30,000 to help finish construction of a new building.
Spence is now telling the story to the nation in a television ad: "They helped me turn a homeless teen shelter into a home." The announcer continues: "Working to make a difference. The people of Philip Morris."
What this — and the six similar ads that have been running across the country — do not tell you is that Philip Morris is spending more to publicize its good deeds than it's spending on the good deeds themselves.
Last year, the company spent $115 million on charity and $150 million on these TV ads.
So if Philip Morris is so concerned about giving back to the community, why doesn't it take the $150 million spent last year on ads and give that to charity?
"We think it's very important for people to know more about us," explains Peggy Roberts, a spokeswoman for Philip Morris. "We have found that people don't know much, have some misconceptions, and we think it's important for them to know who we really are."
Critics See Ad Campaign as Strategic, Not Charitable
Anti-smoking activists call the ad campaign a smokescreen.
"These ads are not about charity," says Matthew Meyers of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. "These ads are trying to convince Congress and juries that Philip Morris is reformed and responsible, so that the next time they have to walk into a courtroom or the halls of Congress, they can avoid real change."
Some of the company's own internal documents seem to suggest that Philip Morris' charitable giving has always been motivated by strategic, as well as philanthropic concerns.
For example, the documents indicate the company targets the "favorite philanthropies" of legislators and their spouses, and seeks to "neutralize" women and minority groups that might otherwise speak out against the tobacco company's marketing tactics.
Philip Morris wouldn't comment directly. "I don't know anything about that document," rebuts Roberts. "I don't know where it comes from, I don't know what context it was from, but I can tell you that we get involved in these contributions activities because we believe it's the right thing to do in the communities where we have a presence."
Spence says she does not feel used by Philip Morris: "Who holds, and how Philip Morris is held, responsible, I don't have the ability to do that and don't have the responsibility for that. I do have a whole bunch of homeless kids."
Philip Morris says it will run the ads "as long as it takes" to change public opinion. The public will have to decide whether Philip Morris is "working to make a difference" for the community or for itself.