catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 9, Num 22 :: 2010.12.03 — 2010.12.16


Desecrating the asterisk?

Is it ironic or fitting that, in the same week we posted an issue of catapult on branding, we launched a campaign to gather votes and win a $50,000 grant from Pepsi?  Irony implies that we missed the connection, and perhaps, a certain trendy brand of hipster irony implies that we saw the conflict and embraced it with a snarky sneer.  However, I think I’ve settled on the coincidence as fitting.

Our awareness of the Pepsi grant opportunity began way back in March.  A community leader who had taken notice of our efforts to renovate the old Huss School passed on information about something called the Pepsi Refresh Project.  Recent legend has it that Pepsi decided to buck the trend of expensive, questionably effective Superbowl advertising, instead directing the money toward community projects selected by popular vote.  Each month in 2010, Pepsi has given away $1.3 million to winning applicants.

When our volunteer interns began working with us in June, we tossed out the Pepsi possibility to see if anyone would pick it up as a project.  We all had complex feelings about it.  On the one hand, the grant program is just one expensive marketing plan replacing another.  The agenda of brand building for a selection of beverages with anti-nutritional value is not very disguised.  In the face of increasing wariness about the long-term health effects of consuming corn syrup and caffeine, the Pepsi Refresh Project is an attempt to associate the company’s name with grassroots innovation for the common good.  Were we really interested in gathering our energy as an unpaid staff of a very small non-profit to supplement the marketing efforts of a multi-million dollar company producing products that don’t ultimately contribute to the well-being of our community?

On the other hand, each month, 32 individuals and organizations are receiving $5,000 or $25,000 or $50,000 or $250,000 to turn big ideas into reality for the good of humans, animals, land forms and more.  I suspect that many of these projects, like our own, fall outside of the stringent categories of many large grants.  Some of them don’t even have the $500 to apply for the non-profit status required to be considered for other grants.  In a way, a corporate giant is providing an end run around a lot of prohibitive red tape, making it more possible for the little guy to be creative in very local ways, provided he or she can muster the community support for a winning number of votes. 

But back to the first hand again.  I recently saw the film Dinner for Schmucks, which is the story of a white-collar guy trying to climb the corporate ladder.  When an office opens up on the executive floor, he accepts an invitation to a dinner where the muckety mucks invite idiots to entertain them unknowingly with their grand eccentricities.  The biggest idiot wins, both a trophy and the largest share of patronizing contempt.  As I picture the climactic dinner scene, I can’t help but wonder if *cino is just one of the schmucks, sincerely hawking our dreams and talents while a suit at the end of the table chuckles mercilessly at our naïveté.

However (back to the second hand), like the corporate climber in Dinner for Schmucks who discovers a richer life outside the rat race, Pepsi is doing the right thing by jumping off the treadmill of Superbowl advertising.  The question throughout the film is how much the main character is willing to sacrifice to attain a superficial version of success and win the girl.  In the end, he discovers that the person of integrity he truly desires might be poorer in wealth, but is also the whole person worthy of marriage.  Perhaps some day, Pepsi’s integrity as a corporate benefactor will be matched by its integrity as a beverage manufacturer, but in the meantime, the questions raised apply to *cino as well.  How do we resist allowing our fear of failure to become our identity and drive us to counterproductive, harmful decisions?  When is our ideological discomfort with corporate branding outweighed by the good that a $50,000 grant could do for people in our neighborhood and for the future of Huss School as a place of creativity, compassion and service?  How do we discern what forces are pulling us away from the upside-down Kingdom people we seek to be in and for this world?

Without ignoring any of the tension and complexities, we decided to go forward with the grant application.  Alice, one of our interns, took charge of planning and writing, and off we went to convince everyone we know to vote for our project every day in December (that includes you).  The BRANDED issue of catapult, assigned to this time slot before we decided to go for the grant, was not part of the strategy.  However, we’re grateful for its synergy with our unavoidably mixed feelings, reminding us that perfection is beyond our reach. 

Such mixed feelings should not be unique to a project like a Pepsi grant for the already-but-not-yet people we claim to be.  With capacities that are limited in nearly every way — time, knowledge, foresight, resources — we simply do the best we can in everything, with a spirit of both repentance and hope.  We buy Christmas gifts out of our abundance in anticipation of the giver’s delight, but with regret that they were made by someone born into systemic poverty.  We eat meat in gratitude for its flavor and nourishment, but sorrowful that death’s dark hand was the harvester.  We go on road trips giddy with a sense of adventure and wonder, but sorry for the guzzling of the non-renewable resource that fuels our 70 miles per hour.

And so it is with hopeful gratitude on the one hand, and with sobering repentance on the other, that we ask you to consider sending some votes our way in the month of December (via the Refresh Everything site, on Facebook and by texting 104417 to 73774).  If we are in the top ten in the $50,000 category on December 31, we will win $50,000 to begin our renovation of Huss School as a community center for people of all ages in an underserved neighborhood.  But we also ask you to explore the BRANDED issue of catapult to deepen our collective conversation about branding and related practices that can mark us as people of love, rather than unconscious consumers.

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