Some Trying to Cash In on Lady Liberty

Times Staff Writer

All the makers of Fletcher’s Castoria wanted in return for their $25,000 contribution to help install the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor was to chisel the brand name of their children’s laxative into the statue’s massive base.

Much to the disappointment of Fletcher’s executives and stand-up comedians everywhere, the fund-raisers said no.

Fletcher’s brash offer came a century ago, but now history may be repeating itself as the federal government seeks to renovate the illustrious statue and nearby Ellis Island without spending a dime of public funds.

The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, established by a presidential commission headed by Chrysler Chairman Lee A. Iacocca, has collected $143 million in cash, pledges and supplies from private donors toward its goal of $230 million. Corporations have contributed $90 million in return for the right to use their connection with the renovation project for promotional purposes and advertising.


Some Criticism

As a result, the stoic countenance of Lady Liberty can be seen on television screens and the slick pages of magazines as never before, and some critics are beginning to question whether the business donors are taking liberties with the statue.

Donors’ advertising departments are not supposed to be able to run totally unchecked. The National Park Service, the branch of the Interior Department that manages the statue and the island where it stands, is empowered to review sponsors’ advertising plans.

“We’re doing our best to control it,” said F. Ross Holland, director of restoration and preservation for the foundation. However, he added that “we did not think through completely and thoroughly the fund-raising process and how we would go about it. There’s been a few slips.”


For example, the consulting firm originally hired to solicit donors was fired after it offered to let one potential corporate sponsor close down Liberty Island for a week of parties.

Returned Money

Similarly, the foundation rejected a proposal from Eastman Kodak to emblazon the company logo at specified spots around the island. And when the National Historical Mint, which did not pay for a sponsorship but nonetheless has been marketing Liberty coins and identifying itself with the renovation project, sent the foundation at least $250,000 in donations, the foundation sent the money back in order to discourage others from making unauthorized use of the project.

The foundation also has found itself caught in the middle of a tug-of-war between Stroh Brewery, the official beer sponsor, and Anheuser-Busch, which ran an “unauthorized” commercial using pictures ostensibly depicting work on the Statue of Liberty.

Anheuser-Busch, the biggest-selling brewer in the world, was approached by the foundation in 1982 about a sponsorship. The brewer declined, according to a spokesman, because the company had already spent $11 million to be the official beer of both the Los Angeles and the U.S. Olympic committees.

Iacocca then reportedly called Peter Stroh, chairman of Stroh brewery, whose ancestors are German immigrants. Stroh then became, for the reduced price of $3 million, the official beer sponsor.

But in 1984, Anheuser-Busch began running a “This Bud’s for You” commercial in which men on scaffolding were shown grinding the face of the statue. Foundation officials were incredulous, citing both the false impression that the pictures portrayed actual work on the real statue and what they felt was an implied connection with the restoration project.

The commercial, according to attorney Bruce Keller, a member of the New York law firm of Debevoise & Plimpton, which represented the foundation, was “identical in scene and spirit” to an officially sanctioned commercial by Black & Decker, the tool company.


“Budweiser tried to cozy up to the foundation in a backhanded way,” Keller said. “Budweiser clearly was tweaking Stroh’s nose.”

Defended Right

Anheuser-Busch defended its right to use the scaffold-draped statue in a commercial. “It’s not like we were taking advantage of anything,” spokesman Mike Fleming said.

The foundation sought a permanent court order to stop the commercial, but when the judge asked for additional evidence, the foundation decided that it would be too costly to prove that consumers were misled into thinking that Anheuser-Busch was a sponsor.

“Legally, we are not on too solid ground yet,” Holland said.

But the foundation hopes that a recently introduced bill specifically protecting the salability of the connection with the statue renovation project will discourage companies from trying to get for free what others have had to pay for.

“Any of us want to maintain our exclusivity,” said Bob Betz, vice president of Washington state wine maker Chateau Ste. Michelle, which hopes to become a national brand through its $5-million sponsorship. “The impact on the consumer would be so much less.”

Meanwhile, a scattering of criticism has begun to be raised from those who argue that such commercialization of the Statue of Liberty may corrode the idealism for which it stands. The critics question the propriety of selling shares of America’s heritage to the highest bidder and entangling national symbols in the pursuit of corporate profit and glory.


Losing Foundation

“I thought there were some values we didn’t want to have so commercialized. We’re losing whatever foundation we have,” said Herbert Dordick, a professor in the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Southern California.

Other critics have pointed out that, since the corporate contributions are tax deductible, the government and the general taxpayer end up paying almost 50 cents on every $1 given. The foundation will also incur an additional $38 million in consultant fees, fund-raising and management expenses that would not be necessary with direct government financing.

Thus, since taxpayers are subsidizing a substantial amount of the renovation, these critics say, it would have been much simpler and more appropriate for Congress to provide the $163 million for the project outright. “I can’t imagine taxpayers in this country who wouldn’t be happy to have” a dollar go to refurbish the statue, said Bob Bothwell, chairman of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy.

There is no doubt that the corporate cash will help shore up the statue. Liberty, at a cost of about $40 million, will probably get her new torch on time. But the flow of donations has begun to slow, threatening the plan for completing a $120-million renovation of Ellis Island in time for its 1992 centennial and the establishment of a fund to ensure maintenance of the monuments.

Coins Authorized

To lend a hand, Congress passed legislation this month authorizing the U.S. Treasury to strike commemorative gold and silver coins, modeled on the $60-million Olympic coin program.

As originally conceived, the use of private funding to renovate the Statue of Liberty was to be a grass-roots effort, patterned after the original 19th-Century campaign. It was to draw on schoolchildren, Rotary clubs and such, according to David Moffitt, Park Service superintendent for the Statue of Liberty.

Over the years, a number of small groups had contacted the Park Service about raising funds for the two monuments. Moffitt said government officials thought Congress would decline to fund an Ellis Island renovation, so they linked it with the more popular Statue of Liberty project.

In part because Interior Department officials concluded that it would take more than pennies from 7-year-olds to stay the statue and in part because they were influenced by the likes of Olympics impresario Peter V. Ueberroth and Iacocca, a grandmother-and-apple-pie fund-raising campaign quickly blossomed into a multimillion-dollar marketing scheme.

“This is what America is all about,” declared the Park Service’s Moffitt. “This is capitalism.”