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Monday, October 25, 2021

Column: Take the money and run

Integrity in sponsorship is a big deal. When the news of Tiger Woods’ lustful debauchery reached the public, sponsors like Tag Heuer and Gillette rightly dropped him from their billboards. And in the end, nobody really cared.

Things get a little trickier when the sponsors themselves are the problem. Take BP, whose world reputation plummeted after its oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico and leaders criticized its response. It’s troubling, then, that the arts and the news media, two institutions who have felt more than their fair share of hurt throughout the past decade, and who are often tied to such troubling financiers.

But faced with a desperate need for funding, it’s hard for institutions that rely on their sponsorships and advertisers to turn down cash, even when their sponsors mess up. Though the dilemma is as embarrassing as it is lucrative, staying on board is often the correct decision in the short run – even when your sponsor is BP.

A Los Angeles Times article published Wednesday discussed the potential issues that BP’s sponsorship of non-profit organizations might create, in the wake of the current oil spill. The LA County Museum of Art and the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach both receive millions of dollars in donations from BP, resulting in what the article calls a “public relations landmine” and an incredible fit of irony (BP’s name is a part of the aquarium’s new sea otter habitat).

On the surface, the idea is simple – you need the money, so take it. Institutions like LACMA and the aquarium lend society a benefit far larger than a troublesome tie to a corrupted company. The California Aggie itself published a semi-facetious editorial earlier in the school year calling for more corporate sponsorships in the wake of the budget cuts – joking or not, millions of dollars in revenue for a “Budweiser Stadium” might not be such a bad short-term solution after all.

The catch – that sponsorships are riddled with problems and downsides – still remains huge. In addition to their potential for dramatic irony, advertisements are simply annoying and cumbersome. Sponsorships reek of cronyism and capitalist evils. It’s the heart of the free-rider problem. Institutions like the arts and journalism, though private, largely resemble public institutions – ready to be consumed and exploited at relatively little cost. Players have to scrounge for funding elsewhere, and really, they should take whatever they can get.

Tuesday’s Amgen Tour of California was, among other things, an orgy of advertising for sponsor companies like HTC, Radioshack and whatever other companies Lance Armstrong currently sports. The mess of logos looked pretty neat on the speeding peloton, but Radioshack posters look better in the trash.

But this “problem” of advertisements is nothing new, and is entirely unavoidable. Despite the negatives of a tie to BP, the donation is still an act of benevolence. Continuing to receive money from such a mess might be tantamount to giving out a “best collaterized debt obligation of the year” award, but it’s also somewhat appropriate.

Corporate funding nonetheless is not a viable long-term solution. Since such extreme measures are often problematic, it’s refreshing that they aren’t always necessary. Many troubled media outlets have a dedicated funding line, or at the very least a supportive community. As annoying as those pledge drives are, community radio stations need the money. Perhaps its time for other media to take heed – even if it simply means holding a fundraiser. The New York Times wasn’t wrong to explore the idea of a paid online subscription, and we shouldn’t whine if it’s implemented again.

Maintaining corporate sponsorship and selling out obviously isn’t the best solution. The benefits of donations to art museums exceed the benefits of corporate sponsorship for a university, and in the long-term, it can absolutely lead to further risks and deeper issues of ownership and liability. But it’s still no reason to cut off a link to a valuable source of funding when funding is scarce to begin with.

JUSTIN T. HO is shedding all ideals of integrity in this one, because now’s not really the time to pick and choose your financiers. E-mail him at arts@theaggie.org.

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