US: When a Corporate Donation Raises Protests

Publisher Name: 
The New York Times

WHEN the Columbus Children's Hospital
agreed to name a new lobby after two retail chains to thank their
corporate parent for a $5 million donation, everyone was all smiles.
The same was true when the Ohio hospital renamed itself Nationwide
Children's Hospital, to acknowledge a $50 million gift from Nationwide
insurance, a large local company.

But
a coalition of children's advocates contends that the hospital went too
far by agreeing to name a new emergency department and trauma center
after another locally based retailer, Abercrombie & Fitch, in exchange for a $10 million donation.

The
coalition, which includes the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood,
several pediatricians and Parents for Ethical Marketing, is asking the
hospital to reconsider the decision made in June 2006 to accept the
donation. The plea is being made now because ground is to be broken
this year for the building to house the emergency and trauma facilities.

The
15 organizations and 80 individuals that compose the coalition contend
that naming the new center after Abercrombie & Fitch - known for
provocative advertising and revealing clothing - sends a grievously
wrong message.

"It is troubling that a children's hospital would
name its emergency room after a company that routinely relies on highly
sexualized marketing to target teens and preteens," the members of the
coalition wrote in a letter that was sent on Tuesday to the hospital's
office in Columbus, Ohio.

"The Abercrombie & Fitch Emergency
Department and Trauma Center marries the Abercrombie brand to your
reputation," said the letter, addressed to five senior officers of the
hospital. "A company with a long history of undermining children's
well-being is now linked with healing."

The complaint is an
example of negative reaction to the increasingly prevalent practice of
naming public facilities after corporate sponsors, donors and
supporters.

Opponents who complain about the growing
commercialization of the American culture are upset that private
companies are able to brand stadiums, parks, schools, school buses and hospitals.

About a dozen hospitals across the country bear corporate or sponsor names, including at least two other children's hospitals: Mattel Children's Hospital U.C.L.A. in Los Angeles and Hasbro Children's Hospital, the pediatric division of Rhode Island Hospital in Providence.

Naming
a facility for Abercrombie & Fitch "is more egregious," said Susan
Linn, the director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood in
Boston, because of the reputation of the retailer as "among the worst
corporate predators" for "sexualizing and objectifying children."

"Selling
corporate naming rights is a slippery slope, and this is way down that
slope," said Ms. Linn, who is also the associate director at the media
center at Judge Baker Children's Center, an affiliate of the Harvard
Medical School.

The sex-drenched images of toothsome young men
and women that Abercrombie & Fitch has used for years to sell its
own-brand apparel in ads, posters and catalogs have made the company
and its chief executive, Michael S. Jeffries, billions of dollars - and
countless enemies.

The opponents of the company's campaigns,
which are typically shot by the fashion photographer Bruce Weber,
contend they cross the line by presenting undressed teenagers and
20-somethings in overly sexualized situations. The company describes
its ads as playful and celebratory of the free spirit of today's young
Americans.

Last month, the police in Virginia Beach, Va., removed
two large posters - part of the chain's national campaign - from the
windows of an Abercrombie store in a mall and charged the manager with
an obscenity misdemeanor. One poster showed a woman with a breast
mostly exposed and the other displayed three shirtless young men, one
of whom was also revealing part of his backside.

The city of Virginia Beach subsequently decided against prosecuting the store manager.

Other
times, however, the opponents of the Abercrombie approach have
prevailed; in 2003, the company discontinued its popular magazine-style
catalog, A.& F. Quarterly, because of mounting complaints from
parents about its racy contents.

And a year later, the company,
based in New Albany, Ohio, agreed to pay $50 million to settle a suit
that accused it of discriminating against minority employees for
promotions and cultivating a white-only image.

As for the
coalition's protests against the hospital naming, Tom Lennox, a
spokesman at Abercrombie & Fitch, said on Tuesday, "We are proud of
our longstanding relationship with the hospital and pleased to help
secure its bright future."

•

A call from a reporter to
Nationwide Children's Hospital for a response to the letter from the
coalition was returned by Jon M. Fitzgerald, the president of the
Nationwide Children's Hospital Foundation.

"I like to focus on
the philanthropy of it," Mr. Fitzgerald said, adding, "I don't feel
comfortable addressing" any of the objections raised in the letter.

"Two
years ago, Abercrombie & Fitch made a very significant
philanthropic gift," Mr. Fitzgerald said. "In honor of that gift, we
chose to offer recognition of their tremendous support of our
organization."

Mr. Fitzgerald took issue with a contention in the
letter that the hospital agreed to "sell naming rights" to Abercrombie
& Fitch in exchange for the $10 million.

"We don't sell
naming rights," Mr. Fitzgerald said. "We as a nonprofit accept gifts to
support our mission. We're looking for philanthropic support."

The ground-breaking for the building in which the facilities are to be
housed will probably take place in late fall, he added, with completion
scheduled in 2012. The new lobby, to be named after the Limited Too and
Justice retail chains owned by Tween Brands, also will be in the new building.

•

Abercrombie
& Fitch has been a frequent target of criticism from organizations
and activists like those that wrote the letter. They also include the
National Institute on Media and the Family, Teachers Resisting
Unhealthy Children's Entertainment and Dr. Alvin F. Pouissant, the
nationally known professor of psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School.

One
school of thought holds that complaints from parents and the
establishment only elevate the brand's appeal with the target audience.

"There's
always a 'forbidden fruit' aspect to what adolescents do; that's
probably why they smoke," said Dr. Victor Strasburger, professor of pediatrics at the University of New Mexico
School of Medicine, who also signed the letter. A main goal of the
letter is "trying to influence the decision-makers at children's
hospitals to act responsibly," Dr. Strasburger said. "We've reached a
point in our society where it seems there's no such thing as bad
publicity," he added. "We have to pull back from that."

AMP Section Name:Media & Entertainment
  • 189 Retail & Mega-Stores