IN STAGING EVENTS, DEBATE COMMISSION GETS HELP FROM CORPORATE AMERICA
New York Times
October 14, 2008
When the final presidential debate is held on Long Island on Wednesday night, little attention will be paid to who exactly is sponsoring the event: the beer giant Anheuser-Busch; the International Bottled Water Association, a trade group; and EDS, a subsidiary of the technology company Hewlett-Packard.
In a far more low-key manner than the lavish sponsorships at the two political conventions, corporate America is providing cash donations and in-kind contributions and lending their executives to the debates. In return, many sponsors are getting coveted tickets to the debates and, even more, the chance to polish their image as good corporate citizens.
The Commission on Presidential Debates, the nonprofit group that operates the debates, says it is grateful for this corporate help, which allows it to defray some of the costs of producing the four events. Campaign finance watchdog groups, however, have raised questions about whether this mingling of corporate money with the presidential debates is yet another avenue to gain political access.
“We are very concerned,” said George Farah, executive director at Open Debates, a nonpartisan group critical of the commission. “We don’t think that this most sacred forum should be brought to you by Anheuser-Busch.”
Corporations are barred from making campaign contributions, but they can donate to the Commission on Presidential Debates, whose two co-chairmen are former heads of the two major political parties. In addition, sponsors receive tickets to the events allowing them to “hobnob with campaign staff advisers and managers who will be senior advisers in the next administration,” Mr. Farah said.
Janet Brown, executive director of the commission, said fund-raising for the debates was “difficult,” since opportunities for product placement and marketing are not the same as at the two political conventions or other widely attended events.
“We are really grateful to the corporations,” Ms. Brown said. “They see it as part of civic and community support, and they don’t get a lot for it. They don’t get any access to candidates, and their name is not mentioned on air.”
Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr., the Republican chairman of the commission and the president of the American Gaming Association, a trade group, said corporations had “no control, input or say. They are only giving as good citizens.”
The commission’s Web site lists eight national sponsors of the three presidential debates and one vice-presidential debate. They include BBH New York, an advertising firm that has produced an educational Web site called mydebates.org; JetBlue, which provides airline tickets; and the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, a charitable organization created by the son of the billionaire investor Warren E. Buffett.
By far the most prominent backer is Anheuser-Busch, a debate sponsor since 1992. Not only does the beer company donate directly to the commission, but it also sponsors a hospitality tent at each debate, where members of the news media and others who are working can receive free food, beer and other refreshments.
“We hope our hospitality area will provide a welcome opportunity to relax with some great food and ice-cold beverages,” said an Anheuser-Busch invitation to the tent. “If you’re looking for a little entertainment, you’ll be able to watch some of our latest television spots and enter a drawing for a chance to win a Budweiser fire pit, perfect for outdoor gatherings this fall.”
Francine Katz, vice president for communications and corporate affairs at Anheuser-Busch, declined to say how much the company spent on the debates, except that it is “a very significant sum.” Compared with events like the Olympics and the political conventions, the debates offer minimal opportunities for Anheuser-Busch to promote its brand, she said.
“A lot of what we do is as a corporate citizen and not for recognition,” Ms. Katz said. “This is probably the most-watched election, and it is an honor for Anheuser-Busch to be at the epicenter of that process. These are important debates, and we are proud to help make them possible.”
Joseph K. Doss, the president of the International Bottled Water Association, says his group donates the services of its top lobbyist and provides bottled water to the debates, but does not make a cash contribution.
“The debates are a great cause and a good opportunity for us,” Mr. Doss said. “It gives us visibility having our name as a sponsor, and it’s good for us to be associated with something so visible.”