Don’t Look Now, but Companies Are Giving Away Everything They Used to Sell

But where’s the line between charity and self-promotion?

a boy tosses a roll of toilet paper to a woman in a car
A PR agency in Atlanta started a toilet paper charity drive, showing how any company can become relevant during a crisis.
Trevelino/Keller

Key insights:

Shortly before everyone in the offices of Trevelino/Keller packed up their things to work from home on Friday, principal and co-founder Genna Keller took a peek into the Atlanta PR firm’s supply closet and was surprised by what she saw. There, before her eyes, was a supply of toilet paper—a lot of toilet paper. Like, about 150 rolls of it.

Under any other circumstances, there would have been nothing notable about such a sight. But not this week. Since coronavirus hotspots began popping up across the country about a week ago, the first commodity that panic buyers stripped from store shelves was toilet paper. Keller had already heard about the shortage; it was all over the news.

“Every time I’d read a story, an image would pop up about people losing their minds about toilet paper,” Keller said. “And you’d look at it and think, ‘What in the world is happening that people are fighting about toilet paper and that it’s all wiped out?’ No pun intended.”

Trevelino/Keller

And since TP has joined the ranks of hand sanitizer, disinfecting wipes and face masks as commodities that can’t be found, Keller had an idea: Why not just give her firm’s stock away? It wasn’t doing any good sitting in the supply closet in an empty office. Discovering that the URL ToiletPaperExchange.com was available, Keller bought it. Then, after ordering more toilet paper from her office supplier, she announced that her company would be giving it out on Tuesday: One roll per car, tossed into an open window to comply with the social-distancing mandate.

She announced the giveaway at 2 p.m. By 5 p.m., the cars were lining up.

As coronavirus has clawed its way across a hapless country, forcing people to cower and home and rewriting most every convention of the free-market economy, Trevelino/Keller is one of many companies that have opted to devote their energies to giving away free stuff. The motive? Altruism, of course—with maybe a little bit of marketing thrown in.

“This is a time of incredible anxiety and uncertainty, and every person on the planet is sharing this experience. In response to this health and humanitarian crisis, many brands are responding in an effort to show the world’s citizens some compassion by providing free of charge products and services, that only a week ago we would have paid for,” said FutureBrand consumer client director Meghan Labot. “We have to believe that the motivation behind these gestures is genuine. Those making the decisions to do so are human too.”

Let the giveaways begin

Freebies started showing up as early as two weeks ago, when coronavirus fears were just beginning to percolate on a national level. On March 3, Google announced that it would grant free access to its Hangouts Meet video conferencing tool to its G Suite and G Suite for Education members, allowing them to have meetings with up to 250 people and livestream to up to 100,000 viewers—features usually available only with the Enterprise editions of the tool. Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai tweeted that “we wanted to help businesses and schools impacted by COVID-19 stay connected.”

Google may often be cited as a business pioneer, but the adult entertainment business also led the way in freebies. On March 9, Déjà Vu Services, which operates 132 strip clubs in 41 U.S. states as well as across Europe, started giving away 10,000 free face masks to patrons of its Tampa location and 50,000 bottles of hand sanitizer to customers at Little Darlings, its club in Las Vegas. Stocks of the sanitizer ran out after two days. “It might seem silly,” said Mark Figueroa, the Tampa club’s general manager, in a statement, “but we take the health of our guests very seriously.” (Not to be outdone by a strip club, Pornhub opened up its Premium access to would-be viewers quarantined in Italy on Friday the 13th.)

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