The Blog

Procter & Gamble: A Goliath In Sheep's Clothing

Is it right for a corporate juggernaut to get a handout when competing against non-profit Davids who have a fraction of the resources?
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

In cases of the proverbial David vs. Goliath, Goliath always has the opportunity to truly be the bigger man by simply doing one thing: opting out of the fight. Even dating back to the original biblical story, surely no one else on Team Philistine would have argued if during some lull in the action Goliath sized the situation up and said, "Hey David, no offense but look how big I am. This isn't really fair. I mean, sure you could defeat me, but it's totally a one-in-a-million chance. So why don't you compete against these other similarly sized foes, while I look to stoke my competitive flames with foes who are more my size." Although it was Team Philistine, so maybe they wouldn't settle for shooting a fair one. But I think we could agree that with this approach history would now look on the felled Goliath a little differently; a symbol of pride through humility and largeness of character, as opposed to one of brash vanity and unwieldy largesse gone wrong.

The original Goliath never seized the opportunity, but I invoke the tale today in advising a modern day Goliaths — Procter & Gamble — to heed the message and do the right thing: opt out of the battle.

Now I'm a realist, so this is no threat. I would understand if the P&G Goliath were skeptical about the contemporary translation of e-mail slings and blog-stones felling a beast boasting upwards of $68 Billion dollars in annual sales. Much like living in the belly of a whale, or turning a lump of coal into Jessica Biel's behind, it's easy to read these "historical facts" with suspicion. But the truth is we don't read the Bible for facts, we read for guidance with regards to doing "the right thing." And in this case the right thing is for Goliath to sit this one out. Because even if you dispute the facts regarding David and his timely rock, for Goliath the story remains a public relations disaster. And contrary to popular cliche, not all pub is good pub (ref: Judas, The Devil, Don Imus).

If you're confused by all this, the battle I'm referring to is going on in the American Express Members Project; a campaign where American Express cardholders get to make an impact by putting their vote behind a project of their choice that will make a societal impact.

It's a wonderful idea, but somehow in the execution these big corporations can never make doing the right thing as simple as it sounds. And as we approach the final days for voting in the Members Project, the presence of one huge Goliath has made this charity drive much more complicated.

Consumerist, The Daily Kos, and even Craig from craigslist (who knows how to spot a scam better than he?) have laid out the basic point of contention: Is it right for a corporate juggernaut to get a handout when competing against non-profit Davids who have a fraction of the resources?

If Nike sponsored a charity where earnestly ambitious student-athletes competed in a one-on-one basketball tournament and the winner would receive, let's say $500, to be donated on their behalf by Nike, would we abide by LeBron James entering the contest, dominating, and then soaking up all the positive press? If that wasn't sketchy enough, what if the charity was something akin to the Lebron James Sneaker foundation, and simply amounted to no-cost proliferation of his own product? And what if he donned a moustache and avoided revealing that he was in fact LeBron James? Well shady LeBron James, meet shady Greg Allgood.

(Now, full disclosure: I have bias. I am friends with both the CEO of Donors Choose and his wife, one of the competing parties in the Members Project. But I have never worked for them, nor am I an American Express cardholder with a counting vote in the contest. More to the point, I am not here to rally for this particular David, just to rally against Goliath.)

P&G apologists have two basic defenses: "it's all charity" and "we haven't broken any rules."

But while they may not have broken any rules (which seems largely because there are no rules to break.), make no mistake, there's been sketchy business. In the most recent NY Times article raising issues of fairness, Gregory Allgood the project sponsor and director of P&G's program bearing the same name was reported as "distraught" and considering withdrawal. my memo to Mr. Allgood: Do it!

Of course he hasn't:

As of Friday evening, he had decided to stay in the contest.

"The whole reason I'm doing this is to save kids' lives," he said, "and I don't want to do anything that would interfere with that mission."

Even this short soundbyte contains a murkiness you couldn't clear with $5M worth of PUR sachets. After all, the bottom line is: A P&G employee created a project that would result in the distribution of a P&G product, and it's only thanks to the AMEX application process (which kept project descriptions very short and prohibited trademarked names) and the liberties of retroactive decision-making that AmEx/P&G can claim otherwise.

And really, does he mean to insinuate that P&G or UNICEF, who roll with operating budgets in the billions, NEED this $5M? Claiming you're doing this to save lives, when in fact, it's your job, and the money your competing for represents a fraction of your regular budget, is misleading at best.

Allgood might as well sign up for pee-wee football under his child's name, perhaps wearing an ironic t-shirt that reads "I am not an unwieldy corporate goliath," and then go out and dominate baby! When called out about having an unfair advantage, he can express his ambivalent consternation but then feel resolute in saying, "ethics aside, it's all good because I'm really just trying to help the rest of these kids win."

If you're not fired up about this, then maybe someone could page Michael Moore, cause this is smelling pretty fishy - with certainly enough fodder to get him started on his next project. He can direct, and with all the decoys and subterfuge, I'm just wondering if Allgood should be played by Pitt or Clooney in this Big Business edition of Ocean's 14.

This is all before getting to the fact that P&G is very familiar with navigating through patches of moral turbulence. So if you're voting for them, just ask yourself this: are you sure you're donating to clean water, or might you be paying for hush money to unilever (a competing charity!). If these guys will dig in the trash, and cover their ass to the tune of $10M (double the prize money!) to get a leg up on a competing shampoo brand, how can you be confident that $5M is all going to a good place? Even a cursory survey of wiki-research reveals the notion of P&G positioned on some moral high ground is dubious. Need Milton Friedman remind us that "The Social Responsibility of Business Is to Increase Its Profits?"

Once placed in context, it almost feels silly to ask Goliath to show some moral integrity. Do we ask the snake to act like a lamb? Despite the promotional copy, they are clearly not beholden to those who so desperately need their water purification system. They have one equation, and framed as an AMEX commercial the formula might read: Submitting a project idea, $0. Raising $5M for your project, $0. Branding yourself as the supplier of clean water to third world countries while simultaneously launching your for-profit campaign in America, PRICELESS. I don't know about the kids with diarrhea in Africa, but that's a formula stockholders can root for.

Anywater, I think this comment on Daily Kos gets to the heart of it all:

It's no surprise that corporations see no issues with doing something like this. They're just made up of all the individuals exhibiting this behavior. There doesn't seem to be too many people willing to stand up and ask them to question their individual and corporate behaviors.

What in the world happened to good, decent people who wanted to do well but didn't want to accomplish that purely by squashing other people down?

What happened indeed. Victory without squashing others? Such would be the actions of a true Goliath. And so P&G, now, has the perfect opportunity to reflect, correct, and reposition. All they need to do is admit the mistake. Acknowledge the shadow you have cast on a contest that should have provided nothing but sunshine. Acknowledge that $5M is nothing to you -- far less than a year of settlements and legal fees -- and that means this project is all about positively branding your product in front of the very people you will eventually sell the product to for-profit. In exchange, we'll allow you to couch your concessions in such confusing language and double-talk that direct culpability that direct culpability will forever be shrouded in doubt. Hey, you didn't break any rules right? It's Allgood. Just withdraw from the contest. Otherwise we might forever notice that while PUR does in fact miraculously clean dirty water, somehow it still smells rotten.

So I'm going to stop my rant here, but if you're looking for more, I've posted a follow-up here.

In the meantime, here are steps to Take Action:

1. Vote for your choice of Davids at The Members Project. Get others to do the same.
2. Contact AmEx, let them know you don't appreciate their indifference over this obvious taint of the competition
3. Contact P&G and tell them to play against corporations their own size.