October 26, 2015

Bloomingdale’s ‘Icons With Impact’ Campaign Symbolizes Worrisome Shift in Philanthropy

Jeff Greenberg, Getty Images
The descriptions read like failed pitches for a sitcom on the nonprofit world: A punk-rock makeup artist supports music programs for urban youth. A magazine director sponsors a school in Haiti. A "stylist, humanitarian, and power-mom" provides "everyday heroes" with "life-changing style experiences."

These blurbs accompany the "Icons With Impact," featured in October in Bloomingdale’s windows on 59th Street in Manhattan and on the store’s website.

The store, in partnership with Levi’s, selected eight stylish "trendsetters" who merited the honor by their involvement in a charity, thus "setting a new standard for giving back — and looking seriously stylish in the process."

The exponential hustle effect is admittedly impressive: The "icons" can round out their personal brands with feel-good causes. (I have to give the football star Vernon Davis extra credit: Already named an icon, he proclaims that he is wearing his own jeans in the accompanying fashion shoot and supports a foundation named for himself. That’s a triple word score of self-promotion.)

The nonprofits these people advance increase their own visibility — and, I hope, their coffers. And the store burnishes its reputation without descending into an earnestness that might come off as dowdy.

While socialites bridging fashion and philanthropy have been around since at least the first Gilded Age, such a thorough incorporation of philanthropy and commerce, as a marketing pitch unto itself, is worth examining.

First, I would argue that philanthropy has a fundamentally different horizon than fashion. Philanthropy creates hospitals, schools, theaters, and gardens — endeavors that are built to last, not breeze through ephemeral trends.

From the Bloomingdale's Icons With Impact campaign.
Second, and more broadly, philanthropy has much stronger integrity outside of the capitalist market. When we engage in philanthropy with a mentality of sharing and obligation to others, we counteract rampant narcissism and greed.

For the "Icons With Impact" campaign, philanthropy is both a product and a transcendence of crude shopping. Bloomingdale’s is selling philanthropy as a lifestyle, which in turn can only be completed by buying actual fashion commodities like Levi’s denim. Philanthropy has become a meta-brand, uniting retailers, spokesmen, and consumers in a transaction where ethics and esthetics — that is, doing good and looking good — are synergistically reinforcing, apparently without any sacrifice or conflict in fundamental aims.

October’s status as Breast Cancer Awareness Month has drawn growing criticism of superficial, even misleading cause-related marketing.

The term "pinkwashing" surfaced in 2002 in response to pink branding by companies whose products might contribute to the disease. Pink Ribbons, Inc. (both the 2008 book and 2012 documentary) examine how philanthropic interests have been co-opted into corporate marketing strategies, often as a way to escape any challenging questions about harmful products, or difficulty accessing and paying for treatment.

Perhaps the materialism-friendly nature of pink branding is only underscored by Bloomingdale’s move to incorporate breast cancer awareness into an entirely separate marketing endeavor: "With philanthropy top of mind this Breast Cancer Awareness Month …," the promotional copy notes, the store will host a morning yoga class and donate the reservation fees to the Cancer Vixen Fund and the Tutu Project.

Rather than seeing the "Icons With Impact" campaign or omnipresent pink ribbons as well intentioned but misguided outliers, I would argue that they are symptomatic of a shift at the very center of philanthropy. These examples illustrate how important the consumerist, promotion-minded "self" has become in the domain of activities we think of as "selfless."

Admittedly, the individual icons’ narratives contain some touching and humble motivations for giving. Designer Billy Reid remembers his parents’ commitment to local causes and is now deeply loyal to his Alabama community. Cyndle Komarovski connects her growing confidence from punk music to a music program that gives kids "the tools to reach their full potential." That said, the focus of each profile is the icon, their chosen cause just one segment of their respective portraits, right alongside their style philosophies and favorite pieces of denim.

As it happens, I encountered this display several hours after New York’s Columbus Day parade, with empty floats making their way down Lexington Avenue, headed back to the warehouses of Bayonne, N.J. One in particular caught my eye: "Society of Bitetto Mutual Aid." The float contained only a replica of the Chiesa del Beato Giacomo, the local church. Like many mutual-aid societies formed by immigrant communities at the turn of the 20th century, they provided a combination of financial assistance during hard times, a social anchor for new arrivals, and cultural preservation for hometown traditions.

The contrast between this lonesome float and the gleaming windows across the street felt so stark: The float showcased a communal effort, represented by a local monument. No one person was elevated as an icon; it contained no corresponding pitch or brand. The term "mutual aid" demonstrated communal solidarity. Even the humble papier-mâché and tinsel decorations felt edifying; there was no pretension of slick production values.

I grasp the pragmatic value of updating the presentation of philanthropy, the relative gain made by channeling a "cool factor" to increase giving. I also admit that a parochial mutual-aid society with a strict focus on one hometown, one church, may be more limited than more cosmopolitan projects. But the old-school sincerity of the Bitetto Society’s float demonstrated that we didn’t always need style icons to keep the well-being of others "top of mind."

Amy Schiller, who has worked as a major-gifts fundraising consultant, campaign director, and political organizer, is a Ph.D. candidate at the Graduate Center of CUNY.