Is there anything more sad than a new addition to a children’s hospital being named after a fried chicken magnate?
The Janeway Children’s Hospital Foundation has been touting the opening of such a facility: the Colonel Harland Sanders Pediatric Research and Family Resource Centre.
Harland Sanders, of course, is that southern chap with the funny tie and white goatee who founded Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC).
The resource centre and its staff will, in the foundation’s own words, “be responsible for supplying patients, their families, and the community with access to reliable health information so they can make informed decisions about their children’s health.”
One of those decisions, we hope, is fewer trips to the iconic red-and-white grease palace.
About the only thing less healthy than the Colonel’s deep-fried poultry would be that other southern delicacy, chicken-fried steak, in which slabs of beef are covered in batter, deep-fried and served with a white cream sauce.
Let’s be fair. We all like to give into that unhealthy urge now and then, indulging in artery-clogging fun foods such as hamburgers and fries. And only the most steely of parents could enforce a strict ban on hot dogs and ice cream.
But a health resource centre?
The only finger-licking that should be going on there is what’s required to turn the pages of a nutrition brochure. (And that’s not very hygienic, by the way.)
Of course, KFC isn’t the only fast-food giant to launder its image through mismatched charity efforts. There’s the ubiquitous Ronald McDonald House program, which establishes residences near hospitals for families of sick children to stay in. We have one in the works in St. John’s.
This is a worthy cause, of course. But why name it after a dated and, frankly, somewhat creepy fast-food mascot?
“Hey, kids, how about a cheeseburger to take your mind off that inflammatory bowel disease?”
What’s next — the Virginia Slims Centre for Asthma and COPD Research? Kellogg’s Sugar Pops Dental Health Clinic? The Hugh Hefner Institute for Sexual Addiction?
It’s a sign of the desperate need for health funding that such juxtapositions occur. Clearly, health authorities are willing to absorb the ridicule in exchange for much-needed facilities and equipment. Such is the brave new world of private-public partnerships.
The Janeway centre is not KFC’s most controversial partnership. That title was taken this past spring, when the chicken franchise teamed up with Susan G. Komen for the Cure, an organization which aggressively raises funds for breast cancer research through its annual Komen Race for the Cure, among other campaigns.
KFC launched its Buckets for the Cure campaign in April 2010, donating 50 cents to the Komen cause with every pink-coloured bucket of chicken sold.
Almost immediately, a backlash arose. Bloggers and media outlets chronicled the anger that hit within days of the advertising campaign. One blogger started a counter-campaign called “What the cluck?” and thousands of people signed a Breast Cancer Action petition condemning the fundraiser.
It didn’t help that KFC had only just unveiled its heart-busting Double Down sandwich, consisting of two pieces of bacon, two melted slices of cheese and a special sauce between two thick slabs of fried chicken — no bun included.
Marketing specialist Susan Schwartz recently summarized the controversy on her website, getingattention.org:
“The absurdity of the partnership is really there for all to see. There’s no way around it,” wrote Schwartz.
“How can funding breast cancer research with the proceeds of fried chicken sales (yes, 22 per cent of KFC chicken sales are for grilled chicken) make good sense? Especially when fried foods are known to contribute to obesity and other health problems, and obesity increases the risk of breast cancer.”
Of course, there have been other examples of “pinkwashing” — in which companies hitch a token ride on the breast cancer wagon just to bask in the good vibes — but the KFC partnership clearly diminished Komen’s good works.
This image-laundering phenomenon is by no means restricted to sponsorships.
In England, two years ago, Greenpeace UK awarded its inaugural Emerald Paintbrush Award to British Petroleum.
Here’s how the environmental group explained its choice:
“The prize was offered in recognition of the company’s attempts to greenwash its brand over the course of 2008, in particular its multimillion-dollar advertising campaign announcing its commitment to alternative energy sources.
“The reality … (is) that this year the company allocated 93 per cent ($20 billion) of its total investment fund for the development and extraction of oil, gas and other fossil fuels. In contrast, solar power … was allocated just 1.39 per cent, and wind a paltry 2.79 per cent.”
With this year’s Gulf oil spill, of course, BP’s reputation plummeted in the wake of one of the worst environmental disasters in history.
The lesson here is simple: the promise of much-needed funding can sometimes cloud people’s judgment.
Corporate sponsorship is an effective and mutually beneficial way of funding important non-profit services. But when a company is only looking to gloss over negative vibes, such partnerships can end up being a marriage made in hell.
As Schwartz puts it, “It’s always dicey when you rent out the warm glow of your organization’s hard-earned identity in exchange for additional exposure and financial support.”
Peter Jackson is The Telegram’s commentary editor. He can be contacted by email at email@example.com.