Corporate philanthropy

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This article is part of the Tobacco portal on Sourcewatch funded from 2006 - 2009 by the American Legacy Foundation.

Corporate philanthropy and corporate sponsorships (a form of corporate philanthropy) are often applied as public relations strategies to superficially improve a company's public image, but they have other PR functions as well:

  • to neutralize enemies
  • positively influence the media
  • increase companies' access to political decision-makers
  • enhance a company or industry's standing with legislators who might be considering regulating them
  • help manufacturers of harmful products resist marginalization and stay in the business mainstream
  • help misbehaving companies gain or maintain a seat at the policymaking table (without actually altering their behavior)

Tobacco industry documents provide the best available examples of how corporations apply philanthropy for PR gains:

Philip Morris and funding of domestic violence shelters

For example, a 1988 Philip Morris (PM) memo lays the groundwork for PM/Altria's public relations strategy of engaging in "social responsible" activities like feeding the hungry and funding domestic violence shelters. Far from engaging in these pursuits for altruistic purposes, however, the memo says that "Benefits PM-USA may realize from a program of this type include ... access to political decision makers." It also says these programs could "Enhance PM-USA's position with legislative bodies who might be considering marketing sanctions, advertising bans and public smoking restrictions."[1]

Philanthropy to curry political favor

Another PM document discussing the Singapore Ministry of Health indicates that PM uses corporate sponsorships (a form of philanthropy) to gain political influence. The author writes that PM's corporate sponsorships are intended to "create goodwill that benefits PM by influencing public opinion, which turn is used by us to influence political opinion/action." The writer says that PM's community involvement programs "can only be of real value [to PM] if they succeed in gaining us political friendships and the opportunity to engage key Government decision makers ..." PM was unable to use corporate sponsorships to curry political favor in Singapore because "S'pore was a different case altogether. Here public opinion bears not the slightest weight on political opinion."[2]

Philanthropy to neutralize enemies

The Tobacco Institute's "fire service program" (a massive grant-giving program to fire departments across the U.S. in the early 1980s) was intended to neutralize fire service support for fire-safe cigarette legislation. One of the most telling passages of a key document discusses the industry's's neutralization of the national fire service on the issue of fire-safe cigarettes. In the document Alan Miller of PM's marketing department speaks about the "constituency system" invented by Philip Morris to defend itself and neutralize its enemies. Miller boast about how the industry manipulated one of its most credible and powerful potential enemies -- the fire-response community -- into becoming an ally who would, at the most crucial times, support PM's interests over the public's interest on the issue of self-extinguishing cigarettes. Alan says,

Example. The self-extinguishing cigarette. Who would normally be involved in the self-extinguishing cigarette on the other side of the fence? Probably the fire-fighting community. As you know in the United States, we have put a huge amount of time into helping all the organized groups of professional and volunteer fire-fighters. They get such help from us that is monumental. And then when we need them to stand up and say, not cigarettes that cause fire in 99.9 percent of the cases, we get their cooperation. But that's because we have cultivated them and helped them achieve some of their goals and we have seen that they are a potential enemy that has real credibility. That's the greatest credibility, your potential enemy. We had turned them around and made allies, third party defenders for ourselves.[3]

A 1989 Tobacco Institute memo confirms the intent of tobacco industry philanthropy to the fire service is to neutralize their opposition to the industry. Gleason wrote a telling, handwritten comment on a memo about TI fire service programs says, "Cont[inue] support for hostiles = inoculation," indicating that the tremendous financial support the tobacco industry gave to the the fire service carried the expectation that it would neutralize their opposition.[4]

Philanthropy to defuse anger from ethnic minorities

A March, 1993 Philip Morris Corporate Affairs plan describes the company's strategic rationale for befriending and contributing financially to ethnic and minority groups, and that such affiliations are a corproate strategy to undermine the "antis" (public health authorities). The plan states,

Develop offsetting relationships among groups that are often used by the "antis" suggesting they are victims because they use the company's products. The relationships developed are designed to insure that our case is understood, thus undermining the opposition's ability to organize against the company's interests with leading community organizations...[5]

Related Sourcewatch resources

External resources


  1. L. Lembo, Philip Morris PM-USA Funding for Social Projects Memorandum. September 16, 1988. 2 pp. Bates No. 2044927615/7616
  2. J.H. Jilla, Philip Morris Asia, Inc. Corporate Affairs Issues/D. Harris' visit Memorandum. April 20, 1990. 3 pp. Bates No. 2504047694/7696
  3. Blake, J; Dowling,J; Florio,D; Merritt,W; Miller,A; Rothermel,T; Woodward,G; Philip Morris Corporate Affairs Philip Morris Incorporated 840000 Corporate Affairs World Conference, Rye Brook, New York 840913 Workshop - Dealing with the Issues Indirectly: Constituencies Transcript. September 13, 1984. 67 pp. Bates No. 2025421934/2000
  4. Tobacco Institute Accidental Fire Issue Memo, 3 pp. May 9, 1989. Bates No. TITX0034452/4454
  5. Philip Morris Corporate Affairs Five Year Plan 930000-970000 Report. 33 pp. March, 1993 (estimated date). Bates 2023206094/6126. (This description is found under the "Public Affairs" section of the report, which describes the function of PM's Public Affairs group focusing on contributions.)