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.”


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 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.)

As the pandemic has grown, disrupting daily chores as simple as going to the store or an exercise class, the giveaways have multiplied.

Last week, Comcast announced it would start giving away two free months of internet services to low-income families. One by one, publishers began taking down paywalls. And U-Haul president John Taylor announced that the company would offer 30 days of free storage to college students who found themselves suddenly booted from campus.


Then, starting this Monday, more brands joined in. Spectrum began opening up its Wi-Fi hotspots for public use and offering free broadband for the next 60 days to households with K-12 and college kids. Sweetgreen began delivering free salads to hospitals. Burger King has committed all of its restaurants across the country to giving away two free kids meals with every purchase of a regular combo.

Get a workout, learn something new

On the health and wellness front, Planet Fitness and 305 Fitness have started offering free at-home streaming workouts via Facebook and YouTube, respectively. PopSugar decided today to make its fitness app, Active by PopSugar, free “for the foreseeable future.” The lifestyle content platform had been planning to launch the app for some time now, but “last Friday as people started implementing work from home policies and navigating shelter in place mandates, we thought this was something people could really use now, so we worked through the weekend to get it out,” general manager Angelica Marden told Adweek. The app already has close to 10,000 signups since its soft launch a few days ago.

Some of the giveaways center on entertainment, giving people who are working from home and slowly losing their minds something interesting to look at. The NFL has decided to offer complimentary access to its NFL Game Pass, which will furnish “the opportunity to relive incredible NFL games and moments from seasons past”—a fitting thing, since live sports events have been canceled due to the ban on large gatherings, with leagues either suspending their current seasons or delaying opening day.

For homebound professionals aiming to sharpen their skills, social media agency Harmon Brothers has announced that it’s giving away a month of access to its 14 Day Script Writing Challenge online course. The class, part of the firm’s Harmon Brothers University platform, normally costs $197. “These are highly uncertain times, especially as information seems to change day by day. We wanted to do our part and help provide some sense of relief to teams struggling to navigate the situation,” Harmon Brothers CEO Benton Crane said in a statement.

Stuff you can’t find anywhere else

Many of the giveaways have centered on the kind of scarce commodities that have vanished from store shelves.

Earlier this week in Washington, D.C., the Republic Restoratives Distillery started giving away free hand sanitizer—a formula that the popular craft cocktail bar made on its own with the high-proof alcohol it had on the property anyway. Patrons who buy a bottle of brandy, bourbon or vodka—which Republic delivers—receive a free batch of sanitizer, tastefully tagged with the bar’s logo. (In fact, distilleries across the country have been stepping up with homemade hand sanitizers at a time when a bottle of Purell can’t be hand for any price.)

Republic Restoratives Distillery

At Idaho’s Sunrise Café, which has six locations in the greater Boise area, owner Boomer Godsill began giving away toilet paper over the weekend, and the response was “huge,” he told Adweek. “[With] everything that’s going on right now with toilet paper and hand sanitizer, it’s the only thing I can think of to bring people in—and hand sanitizer is impossible to get anywhere.”

Sunrise is in the process of switching from being a traditional restaurant into a kind of on-demand grocer that will sell essentials like sugar, eggs, bacon and pancake mix to patrons who stop by to pick up the goods. As for the TP itself, Godsill is quick to point out that the rolls he’s giving away are the thin, coarse, industrial kind (his suppliers shipped him 1,500 of them)—not the cushy consumer stuff you find in stores. In other words, he’s not hoarding and reselling.

Where does charity end and marketing begin?

It’s no accident that nearly all of these giveaways have strings attached—even if they’re the merest threads. Getting those two free Burger King kids meals still requires customers to come in and spend money at the counter. A nifty bottle of Republic Restoratives Distillery hand sanitizer only comes with the purchase of a bottle of hooch. And Spectrum or Comcast Wi-Fi familiarizes the public with those brands’ services, even if they’re free for now.

Getty Images

Is there a risk to brands that consumers might feel played, even just a little?

“It depends on the brand and the consumer,” said brand strategist Lindsay Pedersen, owner of Ironclad Brand Strategy. “A brand is a relationship between the business and the customer. A weak relationship can’t bear the sense of ‘they’re trying to buy me,’ so it strikes a dissonant chord. A strong relationship will become stronger with gifts that make the customer feel known and seen.

“Just promoting a freebie during a time like this is like lipstick. If it’s a great relationship, the lipstick is beautifying,” she added. “If it’s a weak relationship, it appears like lipstick on a pig.”

Indeed, some brands have had little choice but to take the risk of poor optics. Hiki, a deodorant and personal wipes brand of Arfa Inc., had the misfortune of its long-scheduled launch landing on this Tuesday—hardly the best time to win the attention of carefree shoppers looking to try something new.

“While we definitely could have delayed our launch, that would only have served our business ends,” Arfa co-founder and CEO Henry Davis told Adweek. “We felt we could use what we have available, our products, to encourage compassion and reduce fear.”

So the company just gave the stuff out. Hiki’s strategy was to take the high road: Its products are free to all hospital and medical-facility workers. They’re free for the rest of us, too, though the company has requested that those shoppers “pay” for the products by posting “a social message of honesty and compassion that can help in this trying time.”

Meanwhile, in Atlanta, Keller’s PR firm has reached out to other area businesses as part of a broader appeal to donate toilet paper and hand sanitizer, and is planning the second phase of its giveaway for Friday (this time including donated hand sanitizer). Keller says she’s gotten emails from as far off as Hawaii thanking her not just for the gesture, but for creating some news on the web that’s not as depressing as the usual torrent of coronavirus stories.

Does she worry that a publicity firm giving toilet paper to desperate Atlantans might come off as, well, publicity-seeking?

“It’s a wonderful example of showing how you can create a campaign when the chips are down. And it’s doing good by doing well,” Keller said. “It shows you that if you can think creatively, it is a community service—but it was driven by levity and community service. And the promotion is a bonus.”

@UpperEastRob Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.