Brewery taints a good deed in trumpeting it

January 04, 1994|By MICHAEL OLESKER

On this brand new year, the Miller Brewing Company wishes us to drink a toast to a great American jurist. His name was Thurgood Marshall. Also, without quite saying so, they want us to toast a great American beer producer. Its name is the Miller Brewing Company.

Thurgood Marshall grew up in Baltimore and graduated Douglass High School before beginning a legal career that would help America gain a conscience. Miller Brewing has taken that conscience and used it to try to sell a little beer. It's hoping for a little subconscious greatness-by-association perception from people who might not already be drinking its product.

Thurgood Marshall was the first African-American to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court and, before that, his work as counsel for the NAACP convinced the high court that black children had just as much right to a quality public education as white children.

This is where the memory of Thurgood Marshall and the manipulations of the Miller Brewing Company converge. The beer company is entitled to sell its beer, and to extol the virtues of a great American in the process. But maybe the process is a little skewed, which can be measured specifically in money.

The company founded a scholarship fund in Marshall's name, which is described glowingly in company public relations literature:

"Justice Marshall's singular contributions in the field of law altered forever the history of this great nation -- and his unyielding commitment to human and civil rights set him apart as an extraordinary leader and legend, an inspiration for all.

"Of course, leaders and legends must begin somewhere -- usually as young people with grand dreams and exceptional abilities. That is why the Thurgood Marshall Scholarship Fund awards four-year scholarships to outstanding entering freshmen at 37 historically black public colleges and universities."

All of this sounds fine, except for certain arithmetic, to wit:

The Miller Brewing Company spends $150,000 a year to endow the scholarship fund. But it spends $300,000 a year to advertise and promote the fact that it endows the scholarship fund. Isn't something out of kilter when a company spends twice as much to trumpet the good work it's doing than it spends on the good work itself?

"Well," says Ron Richards, Miller's public relations manager, speaking from Milwaukee yesterday morning, "I can't comment on that."

"Well," says the person who administers the fund, when asked about the comparative spending, "I don't want to say anything. And don't say that I wouldn't say anything. And don't use my name to say that I wouldn't say anything."

It's a pity that such sensitivity surrounds such a worthwhile idea. The scholarship fund was established in 1987 by the Office for the Advancement of Public Black Colleges of the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges -- with the Miller Brewing Company as founding sponsor.

It's a pity, because there are still thousands of smart black kids coming out of high school who don't have money for college, and this fund offers help to some of them. Nobody's questioning the help that's given. It's a matter of proportion, of a company offering a lump annual sum -- $450,000 -- and giving one-third of the money to help these kids, and two-thirds of the money to trumpet its own deeds.

"You have to understand," says Ron Richards. "It's a significant amount of money we're giving, and we have to drive awareness of the fund, to get other companies involved so that they'll contribute, also."

So where does the bulk of this $300,000 a year go to "drive awareness" of the fund? Mainly, says Richards, into magazines and newspapers geared specifically to black readers.

Does anyone wonder what Thurgood Marshall might have thought of such a deal? He was a man of the world, so he understood companies taking a bow for their good deeds. But he was quick to speak truth, as well: This is a beer company capitalizing on his name, patting itself on the back in public while pretending to loftier ideals.

Maybe if the Miller Brewing Company rearranged a few figures -- giving more to the actual funding than the self-promotion of it -- it might accomplish two things: help more needy students, and show us commitment that looked believable.

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