When a television network broadcasts an awards show created by a multinational bank’s marketers, what is it? An advertisement? A tribute to deserving charities? An entertainment spectacle?
On Saturday, it might be all of the above.
In a gambit to promote its charitable work — and maybe polish its image, which has suffered since the financial collapse in 2008 — JPMorgan Chase is financing and sponsoring the “American Giving Awards,” which will be televised by NBC on Saturday night. The two-hour show, with Bob Costas as host, will profile recipients of Chase donations, will be book-ended by Chase commercials and will regularly remind viewers that the whole event is “presented by Chase.”
(NBC Universal is the parent of CNBC and CNBC.com.)
The producers and the network suggested Friday that the awards show was a feel-good holiday season special. Kimberly B. Davis, the president of the JPMorgan Chase Foundation, said it was about celebrating “ordinary people doing extraordinary things in communities.”
But to others, the show has another bottom line. It’s a “‘greed-washing’ campaign to score P.R. points,” countered Lisa Graves, whose publication “PR Watch” investigates company public relations campaigns. The $2 million in donations that will be featured on Saturday “are a drop in the bucket compared to its ultra-lush benefits for bankers who profited richly from the swaps that undermined our nation’s financial security,” she said.
The “American Giving Awards” are part of a broader business world trend. Not content to have the news media cover its good works, many companies are creating their own media, often cloaked as entertainment.
Big banks, in particular, “do a lot of socially driven programs, but they don’t consistently tell people about them,” said Steve Cone, a marketing executive for AARP who formerly worked at Citigroup and Fidelity.
And given the financial downturn, “there’s more pressure now to say, ‘We’re not all evil, here’s the good things we do,’ ” said Allen P. Adamson, a managing director at the brand firm Landor Associates.
For instance, one of Chase’s main competitors, Bank of America , has been running commercials this fall that profile small businesses that have benefited from its financial products.
For companies, the promotion of citizenship efforts “is the topic de jour these days,” Mr. Adamson said.
The five charities to be feted on Saturday have already benefited from Chase’s largess without a television extravaganza. Over all, the bank says it gives away $150 million a year; more narrowly, through a program called Chase Community Giving, it has been giving money and visibility to small charities across the country for the last two years.
Intersport, a marketing agency for Chase, and Dick Clark Productions conceived of a holiday season awards show built around the community giving program, said Carter Franke, the head of JPMorgan Chase corporate marketing. Ms. Franke was interviewed Friday from Los Angeles, where the show was being completed.
Five charities that received money from Chase in the past were selected to compete in public for a new $1 million grant, with voting happening via Facebook. The winner will be revealed on the telecast Saturday; the other four will receive smaller grants.
The goal, Ms. Franke said, was not to burnish the Chase brand per se, but to raise awareness of the community giving program. “It is an opportunity for these charities to become better known and for them to show what they can do with these grants from Chase,” she said.
The show concept was taken to NBC, which otherwise would be running repeats on Saturday, typically the slowest night of the week for network television. Asked if it was an advertisement, an NBC spokeswoman said: “No. It’s a show about charitable giving.”
The network declined to comment on whether or how money was exchanged. But Chase did say that it bought eight 30-second commercials that will run during the show.
Sometimes networks sell blocks of time to outside advertisers outright, but the companies involved indicated that was not the case for the “American Giving Awards.”
Internally at NBC, the show has been compared to the annual “CNN Heroes” awards show on that cable news channel.
Like other awards shows, it will rely on celebrities to rope viewers in; it will feature performances by Will.i.am and Rodney Atkins and appearances by Colin Farrell and Miley Cyrus, among others.
A bank giving away money on prime-time TV might be a turn-off to some viewers, but to date only a few seem to have spoken up about it. One of those few wrote on Chase’s Facebook wall on Wednesday, “It’s humorous how easily you can convince people you are doing something good.”
Asked whether Ms. Franke was concerned about that kind of adverse viewer reaction on a bigger scale, she said, “Hopefully, viewers are going to see that there are some wonderful charities out there doing strong things with the help and support of Chase.”