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Shucking Shell

Tue Jul 5, 2005 Miss Vicky 

It came out today that the NCC bowed to pressure from Shell, one of the sponsors of the Canada Day festivities, and scuttled efforts to educate party-goers on the benefits of alternative energy sources.

Corncob Bob, husky spokescob for the Canadian Renewable Fuels Association was supposed to staff an info booth and spread the word about ethanol and biodiesel. Apparently Shell, who already hold a pretty large share of the world's oil and gas market, had a problem with this.

"[The NCC] said they were very sorry but they said one of their major sponsors had indicated there was a conflict between the message that we were promoting and their company's interests," the CRFA's executive director told the CBC today.

I guess the company's interests don't include renewable or alternative fuel sources, despite their website's claims. Not that Shell has a lot of credibility where human rights, environmental stewardship or corporate social responsibility, despite the company's best efforts to market itself as a leader in socially-responsible practices. Environmental NGOs have even produced an alternative annual report to counter Shell's attempts at rebranding. Clearly, though, the multinational is committed to press on in its efforts to reshape its image, even if it means creaming the mascot of one if its smallest competitors...

I'm not going to blame this all on Shell, though. This is what multinationals do, after all. The problem, really, is the whole culture of corporate sponsorship.

It costs money to put on big events, and corporate sponsorship is the most common way of raising the dough to cover things like lighting and staging, wages for artists and technicians, port-o-potties, liability insurance and so on. Corporations are only too happy to fork over the money, especially when the visibility helps them improve their public image by portraying them as community-minded. But there's always a price tag - and I don't mean just the garish logos splashed all over. This episode reveals that the cost can be much higher - like curtailing free expression and diversity of opinion.

This problem is nothing new - I mean, take a look at university and college campuses. For quite some time, cash-starved postsecondary institutions have looked to corporate sponsorship as a way of making up the shorftall in government funding. Heck, some instutions even have price lists for sponsorship (so much for a classroom, wing, building and so on). And it's not just infrastructure - sponsored research is also on the rise... a lot of government grants now require partnership with the private sector. This can seriously compromise the diversity of research occuring at Canadian universities - not to mention the conflicts that arise when the researcher and the corporate sponsors differ (*ahem*nancyolivieri*ahem*). Here's a good website exposing some of the troublesome relationships in Canadian higher education. There's also this tool for mapping the corporate campus.

But I digress. What's my point? Sponsorship has been on my mind this week. Not just because of poor Corncob Bob. Yesterday, Councillor Maria McRae was on the CBC musing about the possibility of offering bits of the city to corporate sponsors, starting with Landsdowne Park but possibly also opening the door to logos on the boards of public skating rinks or other city facilities. Like our society isn't branded enough already. So my advice to council as they discuss her proposal: be wary. You're not just selling off bits of infrastructure so a corporation can slap an ugly logo up and call themselves community-minded. You're selling the hearts, minds and wallets of the potential consumers that are your citizens. You're connecting city activities and resources to specific products and brands (is the Weed Man going to sponsor soccer fields, for example? And will this have an impact on councillors' votes on banning pesticides?). There's nothing harmless about corporate sponsorship. It may seem like "free money". But nothing's ever free.

Some people were moved to reply

The Webgeek Jul 5, 2005 11:57 AM said:

For those of us who aren't that well versed on matters affecting academic freedom in Canada, here's some info on Nancy Olivieri

Miss Vicky Jul 5, 2005 11:59 AM said:

Thanks, Webgeek, I meant to put a link up....

The Webgeek Jul 5, 2005 12:27 PM said:

While I'm at it, here's an article about Maria McRae's musings

From the article:
McRae points to cities in the United States as exemplary in their drive to sell the naming rights for "some of their great sports fields" to large companies. "I'm not sure why we are not doing things like that right away," she said.

I'm not sure selling off the names of stadiums is all the popular down in the States, so calling the practice as "exemplary" might be a little far reaching.

amckay Jul 5, 2005 09:46 PM said:

This whole corncob bob thing was pretty disgusting if you ask me. Gonna write the city about it.

EDIT : GRRR! It's not even the city - it's the friggin' NCC! Those guys are evil with a capital E

Flanders Jul 6, 2005 01:36 PM said:

The only good thing about naming rights on stadiums/arena is the remarkable correlation between a company deciding to blow its cash in this way and lousy performance. Some examples: The Houston Astros used to play in Enron Park. The St. Louis Blues play at the Savvis Centre: stock issued on NASDAQ at US$24, currently trading at 90 cents. The Vancouver Canucks play in GM Place - whose bonds were recently downgraded to junk status...and so on...

The Webgeek Jul 6, 2005 01:39 PM said:

you're missing the obvious "Corel Centre" as well...

Has Nortel ever slapped it's name on an arena?

Miss Vicky Jul 6, 2005 02:27 PM said:

An interesting correlation, Flanders. There's also the Lynx's own stadium, formerly known as Jetform stadium, if I recall correctly.

amckay Jul 6, 2005 03:12 PM said:

Jetform did OK - bought by Adobe and they still have most of the original workforce here.

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