British Gas, #TweetForShelter and the backhanded gift

With Christmas on the horizon and a chaotic Black Friday behind us it’s perhaps the best time to talk about the backhanded gift, the selfish act of giving to gain something yourself. This is something that we have all no doubt experienced. Whether you are the father buying his son the latest PlayStation game so you can play it when you’re the last one awake, or the wife buying her husband two tickets to see that band that you both really like. It feels great to give a gift and to fill somebody else’s life with joy, and hey, it isn’t that bad if maybe it illuminates our lives a little as well. I’m sure that I’m not the only one who has found themselves going overboard when tipping if we’re sat opposite a date after a nice meal. I’m also sure that your Facebook news feed, like mine, is non-stop parade of people running, skydiving and not shaving in a bid to display just how charitable they are. The cold hard fact is that charity is very much a two way street. It’s time to admit that it isn’t just about the other person but also that the act of giving feels good, and crucially it also looks good to others.

This Friday British Gas decided to generously raise money for Shelter, a charity which helps those struggling with bad housing and homelessness. Shelter offer advice, support and legal services to a section of society that we could all potentially find ourselves in at some point in our lives. This is a charity that, for right or wrong, resonates with the public even more at this time of the year, when the winter cold creeps into our homes and we plan our Christmas celebrations with loved ones. Only a cynic wouldn’t suggest that British Gas obviously realised that homelessness is a big issue in Britain and wanted to help with the problem. Their employees had already raised £1m for the charity, and the company was willing to add some more of their own money, for every #TweetForShelter hashtag on Twitter they would generously add £1 to the campaign. The chance to help raise money for a noble cause with a simple tweet was obviously very attractive to compassionate and socially aware Twitter users. The hashtag caught on and was tweeted thousands upon thousands of times, resulting in it trending, allowing even more people to see it, repeat the hashtag and to continue the fundraising. Celebs, journalists and other influential users of the site drew attention to this fundraising opportunity and the cycle of tweets snowballed further. So far, so good. That is until you take a look in a little more detail and realise that they will only match this until the cap limit of £10,000.

Whilst £10,000 is undoubtedly a large sum of money, and one that any charity would be grateful for receiving it pales in comparison with the adjusted operating profit of £528m that British Gas made in the sixth months to 30th June this year. That £10k amounts to less than 0.002% of their profit, a profit they exceed in under 10 minutes. When numbers so mindboggling are being discussed the £10k that they have raised through the #TweetForShelter campaign looks at best like the change that had fallen down the side of their sofa, and at worst, like a gross insult to the British public.

Earlier this year Ann Robinson, director of consumer policy at uSwitch.com, said that consumers were “struggling” with energy bills “£700 a year higher than they were ten years ago” with costs well above inflation. When you consider this climate, in addition to the 6,000 job cuts that Centrica, the parent company of British Gas, is to make to its workforce this year, it becomes abundantly clear that they care little for those struggling with the reality and threat of homelessness.

British Gas announce that the £10k target has been reached

Once the 10,000 necessary tweets had been achieved, and the cap met, it was over, British Gas had done their part, however oblivious to the small-print the tweets continued to grow as people spread the message in the belief that they were helping those less fortunate. For £10k British Gas managed to use the British public to do their advertising for them. They have manipulated an audience to believe that they were helping when in reality all they were doing was assisting British Gas in drawing attention to their own generosity, like a leching drunk winking at the barmaid as he whispers “keep the change love.” It’s far from wrong for a company to use their charitable actions as a form of advertising, we accept that as part of the trade off, but it is only fair when the money donated equates with the free publicity that they are given, it is hugely distasteful when they offer what is for them small change.

You can almost imagine the meetings as they planned this campaign. Firing off buzzwords as they guffawed about the synergy between their choice of charity and the fact their gas heats homes. Clinking champagne flutes and laughing as they compare the £10k they’re giving to Shelter in comparison with the £51k an advertising slot before Corrie would have cost, and wondering if that’s going to be behind the bar for the Christmas do.

British Gas won’t be the first company to manipulate the public to do their advertising for them, and it certainly won’t be the last. However large companies need to back up their words if they are going to claim to be helping charity and not hide behind small-print. Social responsibility exists for everyone, not just individuals.

In this festive season continue to get your partners, parents, children and friends backhanded gifts, but don’t forget that when all is said and done the gift is for them. So if you’re reading this and have got your son the latest Call of Duty then don’t play it before they go to bed, and if you’re British Gas then do the right thing and substantially raise the cap for your #TweetForShelter campaign.

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Sam Farley’s story.