‘Boobies Rock!’ T-shirt company cashes in on cancer
BY STEPHANIE ZIMMERMANN Consumer Reporter email@example.com November 27, 2012 12:14AM
Jessica Thompson with one of the shirts she sold for Boobies Rock at a Notre Dame game and a Bears game. “I was assuming it’s a charity,” she said. | Andrew A. Nelles~Sun-Times Media
WHAT CONSUMERS CAN DO
“Cause-based marketing” — in which a business promises to give a portion of its proceeds to charity — is increasingly common, according to consumer experts who say a good rule of thumb to follow is this:
If it’s a product you need and the business is upfront about how much will go to charity, go ahead. If not, forget it, says Ken Berger, president and chief executive officer of Charity Navigator, which operates the CharityNavigator.org website.
“The best way to give to a charity is to give directly to the charity and cut out the middleman,” Berger says.
Charity Navigator and Give.org — operated by the BBB Wise Giving Alliance — offer consumers a way to check out charities. There’s no charge.
Updated: December 28, 2012 6:09AM
You see them at bars and Bears games and other places around Chicago and the suburbs that attract big crowds and a lot of men — young women who want you to help a “good cause” by buying T-shirts and other items emblazoned with the words “Boobies Rock!” and similarly provocative phrases.
Their pitch: “Would you like to make a donation to breast-cancer awareness?”
Former sellers say it works, often bringing in $3,000 or more in cash at events for Boobies Rock, a company based in a Denver suburb. Often, they say, people would press money into their hands saying they want to donate to the fight against breast cancer, even if they don’t want a T-shirt, beer koozie or bracelet.
“We had these bags of cash,” says Berlinda Williams, who collected money from tailgaters at the Oct. 20 Notre Dame football game.
Williams says her boss told her to “just tell them this is going toward a good cause.”
But Boobies Rock isn’t a charity. It’s a for-profit business. And some of the charities it claims to help say these claims are misleading, a Chicago Sun-Times investigation has found.
One of those charities says it got $100 a year ago and never heard from anyone at Boobies Rock again. Another says it received $250 but only after complaining about the unauthorized use of its name. One charity whose name has been used to market Boobies Rock says, “We never received a penny.”
Just how much goes to charity?
A marketing presentation obtained by the Sun-Times that Boobies Rock uses to gain entry to some venues put its gross revenues for 2011 at about $1.1 million, with net revenue of $400,000 and unspecified “total commitments” at just over $250,000.
Those “commitments” largely reflected philanthropy under pressure: a $250,000 legal settlement that Boobies Rock founder Adam Shryock paid to the Keep-A-Breast Foundation, best known for its I (Heart) Boobies products, to settle a trademark-infringement suit.
Shryock confirms that the “commitments” included the settlement.
In addition to the money, Shryock and The Se7ven Group, another business he owns, gave up about $200,000 in merchandise to settle the Keep-A-Breast Foundation lawsuit, according to Gary Sirota, an attorney for the California charity.
Sirota says that in preparing his organization’s lawsuit, he spoke with about a dozen women who sold Boobies Rock merchandise. He says one woman, in Memphis, Tenn., told him her three-person team collected about $20,000 in cash in three months.
“The guy gave up $450,000 of cash and merchandise without blinking an eye,” Sirota says of the Shryock settlement. “That tells me something.”
As part of the settlement, Shryock and The Se7ven Group paid $25,000 to an organization called the Young Survival Coalition — a donation Boobies Rock touts, saying in an Oct. 31, 2011, blog post: “We are extremely excited to announce that we have just sent a $25,000 donation to the Young Survival Coalition!!”
The donation “did actually happen. But was it voluntary?” says Jenna Glazer, development director for the Young Survival Coalition. “This kind of thing is what makes it difficult for legitimate non-profits to raise money.”
Help ‘a great cause’
Boobies Rock operates in 36 cities nationwide. In the Chicago area, its activities include hosting “Cocktails for a Cause” events at Chicago bars and selling merchandise to fans attending Bears, Cubs, Northwestern, Notre Dame and St. Xavier games without permission, the Sun-Times found.
On its Facebook pages and website, the company describes itself as a clothing business and “a creative blend of music, sports, fashion and pop culture.”
As Shryock notes, the company doesn’t say it’s a charity.
But its website calls Boobies Rock “one of the leading advocates for the awareness of breast cancer across the U.S.” and, until a Sun-Times reporter inquired, the website also promised that “a portion of each sale will be donated to organizations that provide direct services to those affected by breast cancer around the country.” Now that has been amended to say “a portion of each online sale” will be donated, though the company’s Facebook page contains the original wording.
Its materials and pitches include such phrases as “support our cause” and “thanks for helping a great cause,” as well as slogans like “Save second base.”
At a recent bar event in Chicago, the pitch was: “Would you like to donate to breast-cancer awareness?”
Shryock says that as a for-profit business, Boobies Rock doesn’t have to give any money to charity.
But he says it does so, sometimes “anonymously” or under a name other than Boobies Rock, such as The Se7ven Group. He says that’s why some of the charities’ figures are lower than his. And he said he gave $3,000 to an individual breast cancer sufferer.
He says he can’t control the actions of independent sellers who exaggerate the charitable aspect of the business.
“The girls are instructed very matter-of-factly what we are and what we are not,” he says. “We cannot control what some of these girls say.”
He acknowledges that one seller told people she herself had cancer. He says another claimed that 80 percent of the money raised by Boobies Rock goes to charity.
When things like this happen, Shryock says, “We put a stop to it.”
A spokeswoman for Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan says that office has asked Boobies Rock to provide information about its activities to see whether it falls under the state’s professional fund-raising statute.
The company generally hires young women who respond to online employment ads for promotional models. They are told they will be selling Boobies Rock T-shirts and other products for a good cause and will be paid out of the cash that’s collected, according to sellers interviewed by the Sun-Times.
‘I . . . feel like a drug dealer’
Jessica Thompson, who answered a Craigslist ad seeking promotional models, sold T-shirts and other Boobies Rock items at the Oct. 20 Notre Dame game and at the Oct. 22 Bears game. She says her trainer told her to roam the parking lots with Boobies Rock merchandise, seeking “donations.”
“She explicitly told us it was not selling and to not use the word ‘sell,’ ” Thompson says.
Instead, she says she was told, “It’s a ‘breast-cancer awareness promotion.’ “
Thompson says people were told that if they donated a certain amount, they would receive a “prize” like a T-shirt or bracelet.
“I was assuming it was a charity,” she says.
Thompson says she saw her trainer bag up the cash — about $3,000 for each game.
She says the trainer boasted of collecting $4,000 some weekends.
Thompson says she was unnerved by a comment the trainer made as she spoke of her plans to carry the cash back to Boobies Rock in Colorado: “She said, ‘I always feel like a drug dealer when I fly back to Denver.’ “
Williams says she, too, was surprised to learn that she wasn’t working for a nonprofit organization.
“My mom died of cancer,” she says. “I thought I was doing a good cause.”
Her friend, Myesha Jones, who also worked the Notre Dame game, says she put her heart into collecting the money, also thinking she was working for a charity.
“I can’t even tell you how upset I am,” says Jones, who is a teacher.
Giving when confronted
Gateway to Hope is a St. Louis nonprofit that provides care to women with breast cancer who have no insurance or are underinsured. Boobies Rock lists Gateway to Hope as a “Boobies Rock non-profit affiliate” on its materials and lists it on its website and Facebook pages.
The charity has received one donation from Boobies Rock — in 2011, for less than $100, according to Cindy Frank, its executive director.
That donation came after she and the charity’s development director, Susan Bushnell, learned that Boobies Rock was using Gateway to Hope’s name without permission at fund-raisers at St. Louis-area bars and demanded to know why.
Bushnell says that after the donation was made via PayPal, Gateway’s bookkeeper noticed an attempt to void the payment.
“It just makes me sick,” says Frank. “We’ve done everything we can to distance ourselves.”
The Linda Creed Breast Cancer Foundation is another charity listed as a “Boobies Rock non-profit affiliate.” Donna Duncan, the Philadelphia foundation’s executive director, says her charity also got just a single donation from Boobies Rock, also for $100, in August 2011. (Shryock says his records reflect donations of $1,000.)
“They indicated that they were going to give a donation on a monthly basis,” Duncan says. “But that did not happen. We never heard from them again.”
Jami Eller, executive director of the Tennessee Breast Cancer Coalition, another charity listed in Boobies Rock’s promotional materials, said a friend of her daughter observed Boobies Rock sellers invoking the cancer group’s name to sell T-shirts at a Nashville-area bar last year. Eller says she contacted Boobies Rock, and after that Shryock provided a credit-card number and said to run it for a $250 donation.
Eller says the charity “sort of put Adam Shryock on the spot,” adding that it was the only donation from Boobies Rock in the charity’s records. “They’re vague, and they can get around certain things by saying things a certain way. The consumer is just assuming that the money to going to some organization that is doing something with breast cancer.”
The Breast Cancer Resource Centers of Texas, another charity cited as a recipient of Boobies Rock’s largesse, also received one $250 donation, according to its executive director.
And Pink Lotus Petals, a California charity whose name was used by Boobies Rock, got nothing, says its chairman, Andy Funk.
“They told us they were going to make a big pledge, and then started fund-raising, using our name, our brand and the fact that we’re a breast-cancer organization,” Funk said. “Long story short, we never got a dime.
“They were definitely raising a lot of money and nothing ever was going where it was supposed to go.”
‘Never heard back’
In the Chicago area, Boobies Rock has invoked the name of a Michigan charity called The Pink Fund in its stadium parking-lot sales pitches and at bar events. A Boobies Rock news release in March pledged $50,000 to the organization.
Shryock says that reflected a goal for fund-raising for The Pink Fund set in March, but he adds, “I did not want to sign an actual pledge agreement that would bind us to giving $50,000.”
He acknowledges that Boobies Rock did not communicate again with the charity until November. That was after Shryock’s company heard from The Pink Fund’s lawyer.
“We got everything resolved,” Shryock says. “I’m a very understanding person, so I don’t have any ill feelings toward The Pink Fund.”
Pink Fund president Molly MacDonald says that when Boobies Rock contacted her organization in 2011, saying they would like to raise money, she was initially excited about the prospect. “I never heard back from them again.
“We never authorized Boobies Rock to use our name in marketing materials or on their website or anything else. We never had an agreement. We never authorized them to use our name or trademark.”
On Nov. 17, Boobies Rock delivered a company check — not the cashier’s check MacDonald says was agreed upon — for $50,000.
Shryock acknowledges the criticism by the charities, which he blames on online comments by former Boobies Rock employees.
But he says he sees nothing wrong in the way he operates, touting charities he has given even small amounts to or contributed to as the result of a lawsuit.
“We have the right to say who we give money to,” says Shryock. “We don’t have to be best friends with them, but we have the right to say who we give money to.”
Glazer, from the Young Survival Coalition, is among the breast-cancer charity operators critical of Boobies Rock’s methods, which they describe as “pink-washing” — a term used in the not-for-profit world to describe businesses that piggyback on charities’ efforts by, for instance, slapping on a pink ribbon or logo.
“People don’t necessarily have a lot of money to be giving away,” says Glazer, herself a breast-cancer survivor. “When I see somebody trying to make money purely for profit off breast cancer, that absolutely disgusts me.”
Ken Berger, president and chief executive officer of the watchdog group Charity Navigator, which operates the CharityNavigator.org website, says people hear the words “breast cancer” and don’t realize their money is going to a for-profit business.
“It’s like a poster child for pink-washing,” Berger says. “There’s no clear explanation as to how much money goes where.”
Bennett Weiner, chief operating officer of the BBB Wise Giving Alliance, echoes that concern.
“You have to watch out for types of disclosures that tell you ‘some money is given’ because you’ll never really know how much,” says Weiner.
Regarding Boobies Rock, Weiner says, “I suspect that without the charity benefit, people would not be interested in buying the product that he’s selling.”