It’s unsportsmanlike to pick on Bristol Palin, daughter of former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. No child asks to be born into a contentious and vulgar national prominence (although Bristol certainly hasn’t shied away from it). To belittle that child on the basis of its SAT scores, dancing ability, mating choices or spun-out moral compass is cruel and lacks challenge. Still, to allow Bristol’s latest media squall to pass unremarked would be a disservice to all that is helpful and means well in this world.
It is an unpleasant duty to be aware that the Candies Foundation—a tax-exempt promotional arm of the Iconix clothing company—paid single mother Bristol Palin $262,500 in 2009 to promote sexual abstinence. The Candies Foundation’s stated purpose is to “shape the way youth in America think about teen pregnancy and parenthood.”
The nonprofit is named after Iconix’s “sassy” shoe line, Candies. It’s pointless to pretend that every aspect of the foundation’s promotion strategy, from the videos to the web presence to the gala celebrity events, isn’t a branding exercise for Candies shoes.
When Candies contracted 18-year-old Bristol to act as a deterrent to teen pregnancy, her qualifications—other than being a famous person’s daughter—maxed out at having a kid and lacking a high-school diploma. To earn her $262,500, Bristol mouthed a few of the “Vow Not Now” platitudes that she had failed to live up to. Then she was free to go home and kill an animal.
On top of the quarter-million dollars allocated to Palin, the Candies Foundation invested $165,000 in television advertising, much of it featuring Palin, all of it branded Candies, for a total of $427,500 lavished on veiled self-promotion.
One place the Candies Foundation did not spend recklessly was on real-life help for kids who need it—in 2009 these modest expenditures totaled $25,000 to the Mt. Sinai Adolescent Health Center and $10,000 to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.
During that same year, the foundation received grants and contributions of $1,695,632. If the people who kicked in that million-plus are capable of basic math, they may be outraged upon calculating that 10 times as much of their charity went to promoting Bristol Palin as to assisting at-risk teens.
The Candies Foundation was quick to respond to criticism, countering that it is not in the business of making grants. “The foundation develops and runs celebrity-driven communication campaigns to raise awareness,” says its site.
In other words, Candies believes that making commercials is the best way to make a difference.
A Palin insider, defending the Dancing With the Stars contestant to E! Online, said, “If you do your research, you’ll find that most nonprofits compensate their celebrity spokespeople, and Bristol’s no different.”
Research shows that Bristol Palin and the Candies Foundation are different, especially different from, for example, someone like Elizabeth Taylor. The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation, founded by the late actress in 1991, has funneled more than $12 million to provide direct care and services to people living with the disease. Taylor was also chairwoman of the American Foundation for AIDS Research, which has invested more than $300 million toward AIDS research. Neither organization was piggybacked to brand Taylor’s White Diamonds perfume.
In her Candies-stamped safe-sex PSA with Jersey Shore’s the Situation, Bristol claims: “I know how hard it is to be a teen parent.” True, she knows how hard it is to be a teen parent who collected $262,000 based on not knowing or caring enough to use contraception.
Palin, and apparently the Candies Foundation, do not respect the toughness of a teen mom who needs resources for day care so she can attend high school, find a job and provide for her child; who needs food resources so her baby can grow to be healthy and intelligent; who needs safe shelter so she can securely care for her child and herself—these resources, and much more, could have been carved from portions of Bristol’s $427,500 promo budget.
The philanthropic arena is full of celebrities who are not showing up to grab a check. They are personally involved individuals who put their money, time and energy into being direct agents of change—regardless of whether or not they have a product to shill. These fame-wielding advocates, along with a far greater number of lesser-known everyday heroes who tutor, clothe and nourish, who teach, preserve and build, who spread innovation and resolve and compassion, these are the acting dreamers who carry with them the hopes for a better world.
There is plenty of room in this meaningful struggle for Bristol Palin and Candies—once they decide to join the cause.