Companies Support Troops With Little Freebies and Big Media

Troops statined in KuwaitFor married members of the military, the holidays are either special or especially miserable, depending on your family's perspective and the soldier's deployment status. Not one to give holiday bonuses (with which to buy that new stove I've been desiring), the military instead showers its troops with entertainment -- like the famous USO tour that is in Kuwait this week.

Keen to make what they hope is a heartwarming splash with military families, companies often step forward with big, generous-sounding offers. From Kenmore's social media campaign to send a dozen cookies to each deployed soldier (all you have to do is to "like" them on Facebook) to a variety of online retailers offering free or cheap shipping to APO addresses.This year, Procter & Gamble and Walmart have teamed up to offer a media-rich campaign focused on connecting people serving far away with their loved ones -- and doing so while identifying their brand with it. When it comes to the concept of family and holidays, what image is more unspoiled than that that of a reunion between a soldier in a far-off desert and his family in a small Midwestern town just in time for Christmas?

With Operation Family Connect and the Road to Reunion, the USO is giving its corporate partners the chance to show their support for military families, while tugging at the heartstrings of the majority of the U.S. -- people who do not have a family member serving overseas (or one in imminent risk of being called to do so). In an email, the PR representative for P&G tells WalletPop, "Not since the Civil War has the U.S. military had more married men and women actively deployed." Indeed, one of them is married to me. In fact, as I am reviewing the information P&G sent me, said husband calls from Kuwait.

He hasn't benefited from the program, as far as he knows, though in his job he often interfaces with the USO. He works for the Joint Visitor's Bureau and acts as part security guard, part chauffeur and part concierge for visiting musicians, athletes, cheerleaders and other entertainers when they visit. In fact, he has a specific complaint: He bought a calling card with 500-and-something minutes, but in the AT&T tent where he finally found a working phone to call me on Thursday, he learned that for every minute he was on the phone, his non-AT&T card was charged for four minutes. AT&T did not answer an email asking if it charged more from its call center than on other telephones. No answer was given for why he was charged that rate.

I asked Cathy Martens, the VP of Corporate Alliances for the USO, how the family connect operation works for soldiers. When and where, exactly, do they get the free calling cards being offered? And the free satellite phones that are more reliable and far cheaper -- and free in USO centers -- for our service members? She praises P&G for bringing Walmart to the table, for having the "goals and values" of bringing "the most important thing to our troops -- the opportunity to stay connected to their loved ones" through a significant investment in "much needed improvements to technologies."

She won't say exactly how much this costs, but says "it's very expensive." She says some providers were more expensive and less reliable than the satellite phones built into this partnership between the USO, P&G and Walmart. She did not identify the providers.

I asked what my husband and his fellow soldiers should do to connect with their families. "Visit one of our USO centers!" she tells me. I passed the instructions along but sadly, my husband won't be able to take much advantage of this, as he's usually on a mission when he's in a USO center.

Most of these campaigns are full of warmth and fuzziness and good feeling. The Road to Reunion video series -- a beautifully-produced and tear-inducing series of videos about three families in Ft. Benning, Georgia, whose reunion was scheduled in November (those of us watching online won't see the hugs and kisses until Dec. 21, though) -- is a sweet example. Another is the Family Movie Night series produced in concert with Walmart and a few different networks. The Dec. 3rd movie, A Walk In Her Shoes, was a tear-jerker about a family whose patriarch died in Fallujah; Walmart's commercials featured many soldiers and their families, connecting, and shopping at Walmart. (The two-DVD bonus pack is only $13!)

It's all very sweet and appreciated. I clicked on Kenmore's Facebook app, I watched the movie, I cried through the videos, I'll probably take advantage of at least one cheap shipping offer this week. But I find with so many of these that there is more media (of both big and social varieties) than material assistance to the troops. All the movies in the world won't explain to the soldiers that you could be charged quadruple in the slick-looking AT&T tents. All the cheap shipping in the world won't make any of the stuff you're buying a good frugal choice.

And a dozen free cookies, well, it's hardly the filling for the hole in your heart. And as the fine print says, if about 21,000 people click, $50,000 in Kenmore credit will be given to needy soldiers. But here's the caveat:"Donations made to the Wish Registry are not tax deductible and will be used to purchase Sears gift cards for registered families." And the three-week period in which one could register for the Heroes at Home program ended in September, 2008.

I hope my husband gets some free cookies; we're sending him some, too, baked in a Whirlpool. And I hope some of these corporate sponsors provide more material help for the troops -- and wrap it in less message. Isn't that the true holiday spirit?

Ho ho ho.
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