Consumer Republic: White House + corporations = education?

Many press releases cross my desk, but I did a double take at the headline on a recent one extolling a new frontier in the expanding universe of brands: “Exclusive White House Anniversary Merchandise Provides Corporations With Powerful Marketing Tool.” Now through November 2000, the White House is celebrating its 200th birthday–and what better place to do it than on a tote bag!
Newton Manufacturing Co. of Iowa, maker of promotional giveaways, has acquired the exclusive rights to the official tchotchkes of this historic event. “[I]magine,” says the press release, “the impact of giving out a mug or computer screensaver with your company’s logo alongside the White House anniversary logo.”
Lest anyone cry, “Lincoln bedroom!” rest assured this is for a good cause: education. The merchandise program is part of a gala pedagogical project announced to the nation in the July 4 issue of Parade magazine. Millions of American schoolchildren will be recruited to study the White House and celebrate it in story, poem, image and song. In this spirit, a portion of every corporate purchase of exclusive “White House 200th Anniversary: Celebrating Freedom and Democracy” merchandise will go toward “providing educational materials”–whatever that means–“to schools across the nation.”
To spread the fuzzy aura of the White House commemorative giveaways even further, each recipient will get a slip certifying a donation has been made toward the welfare of the nation’s kids. See how easy it is to support education?
When this column went to press, it was unclear whether First Lady/senatorial candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton would serve as honorary chair of the program as originally planned, but certainly a photo op with a bunch of schoolchildren couldn’t hurt. Education is a cause, much like its kissing cousin, “the welfare of the children,” that no one is against–with the possible exception of the American tax-payer. Indeed, education is such a good cause that state governments increasingly waste as few tax dollars as possible on it. Instead, they use its good will as the rationale for the voluntary tax collected by state-sponsored lotteries.
Somehow, putting lotto or “exclusive merchandise” dollars toward ethanol subsidies doesn’t have the same feel-good effect. Would the public mind virtual corporate billboards, like the ones now appearing on sports telecasts, across the White House’s portico during stand-ups by TV news correspondents if the proceeds were dedicated to “educational material?”
We do know that U.S. corporations love the education cause as much as the White House does. There is a big business in providing free “educational materials” to public schools under brand logos, not to mention generous donations of products that function, essentially, as sampling programs. Corporations don’t need the White House to do their bit for America’s future.
Yet Newton Manufacturing is hoping “this ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ opportunity to use [a] logo in conjunction with the White House anniversary logo” will “strengthen a company’s image in front of customers/clients, suppliers, associates or employees.”
I wonder. If the White House is a brand, the brand it most resembles is Coca-Cola in Belgium. Trust in the icon has been shaken by the recent crisis. Nor did the brand’s response to it do much to restore confidence. Both brands are back in business, but for the time being, they’re tarnished and diminished. Courtesy of Ken Starr, Americans have taken a tour inside the White House beyond Jackie Kennedy’s imagination. And there are those who would say the Lewinsky affair has contributed quite enough to the education of our children.
President Clinton aside, the prestige of government institutions, like other forms of authority, is at an all-time low. According to Roper Starch, 77 percent of the public had confidence in government leaders in the wake of Watergate; today that number is 52 percent. Business leaders, by contrast, retain the esteem of 73 percent. Americans started the decade angry and dismissive of those inside the Beltway. As the Whitewater investigation turned into the Jarndyce v. Jarndyce of government probes, they did their best to ignore it. Today, when “freedom” and “democracy” are code words for marketplace choice, Washington seems irrelevant to the commonweal–except that Alan Greenspan works there.
The cynical response to the wholesaling of licensed White House merchandise would be to complain that a symbol of civic life is being degraded into another cheesy marketing gimmick. But as the executive mansion approaches its bicentennial, it’s just the opposite: The White House is attempting to rise to the esteem in which Americans now hold a Nike cap or an mousepad. It’s the White House that’s in need of a powerful marketing tool, not the other way around.