Last week, I was following my regular morning routine — waking at 5:55 a.m., hitting the snooze button, perusing Facebook while half asleep with one eye open — when I saw something that made me shake my head. Among the event invites, birthday reminders, and throwback Thursday pictures was a post in a private S.C. State University supporters group reminding us that the Home Depot's Retool Your School campaign is starting soon and that we should get ready to participate.
A barely audible "oh no" crossed my lips because I knew that for the next two months, my Facebook timeline would be inundated with thousands of S.C. State-specific Retool Your School hashtags. I will be asked to participate, and I will respectfully decline. There is a good chance that because of that I may be ridiculed for choosing not to. And even though my decision not to participate is in no way meant to be a sign of disdain for those who do, it will inevitably be taken that way, leading me to fantasize about punching people I've never met right in their profile pictures.
For the uninitiated, the Home Depot Retool Your School campaign is actually a campus improvement grant program that donates $300,000 to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU). Supporters are asked to use a school-specific hashtag via Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook with each hashtag counted as one vote. Supporters can also boast their institution's ranking by going to the Retool Your School website and voting. There are a bunch of rules, but here's the stuff that matters: the nine schools with the most points win a school improvement grant that varies in amount, from $20,000 to $50,000.
I would like to go on record for saying that this is absolute bullshit.
Now, I didn't feel this way last year, as I participated with much frequency and fervor. But since that time a number of things have happened: 1) There was a threat (some say real, some say baseless) that my alma mater was going to face a closure of some sort, 2) I started giving monthly to S.C. State, and 3) I started looking at the forest for the trees. Needless to say, I did not like what I saw.
Upon witnessing the return of the Retool Your School campaign that fateful morning, I posted in the group that I was not a fan of this process. If memory serves me correctly, I wrote something like "pimpery at its finest." When I returned home from work and jumped on the board I didn't see my post which meant that either I never posted it and just thought I did — at 5:55 a.m. it's more than possible that I just imagined the whole thing — or I did post it and it was stricken from the record. I don't know which is right, but I have something to say about this school pride fallacy.
1) I know $300,000 sounds like a lot of money, but remember, the most any one school can get is $50,000 and that amount of money, while great for something like scholarships, is but a drop in the bucket when you look at where the money actually goes. Home Depot calls this a "school improvement grant," but really, it's a beautification band-aid. Winning schools aren't allowed to actually improve the school by, say, paying off debt, buying new computers, or updating out-of-date software. Instead they have to use the money on lawn care, painting something, or updating an HVAC system — useful stuff but not necessarily anything important when you're in debt totaling millions (see, S.C. State), are in danger of losing accreditation (see, Wilberforce University), and receive an inequitable amount of state funding (see, every public HBCU in America).
2) Home Depot has spent over $700 million in advertising each of the last three years. With all the real issues schools like S.C. State and other HBCUs face, the big box retailer could easily erase those problems with one stroke of a pen in an open checkbook. Instead of simply cutting a check, for the last seven years, Home Depot has had the luxury of over 50 HBCUs, and their respective alumni, falling over themselves to advertise on the chain's behalf.
With each tweet, share, or repost of those school-specific hashtags, HBCU alumni, students, and supporters are saving Home Depot money. We are giving Home Depot, a corporation that had earnings of $6.3 billion two years ago, two months worth of free, targeted advertisements. Because of the promise of a piece of a $300,000 pie, Home Depot has been able to position itself directly in front of the most educated group of people in a demographic of citizens with an estimated buying power of $1 trillion, according to the Nielsen Company.
Last year, my beloved S.C. State Bulldogs earned 363,730 points between online votes and social media hashtagging. That's 363,730 times Home Depot was mentioned for free. This obviously doesn't count the other 50-plus HBCU fan bases that participated nor the press this dog-and-pony show garners the company every year. That said, I'm not judging HBCU supporters for participating, and I won't cry foul against Home Depot for pimpin' the game for all it's worth. This is how they reached $80 billion in sales.
Home Depot has shown an acute ability to manipulate the pride that alumni and supporters have in their HBCUs. This is a skill I'd like to see our schools implement on their own behalf. For example, S.C. State could structure a similar campaign for their fans. Instead of giving away money we don't have, why not offer up season tickets to football games or free Bulldog gear? I'd be open to seeing anything other than HBCUs helping an already successful company reap the benefits of our interaction without a full investment in our well-being.