Why Extreme Makeover (Home Edition) Does So Little With So Much – A Critique of Corporate Philanthropy

Posted on June 14, 2008


People love this show. There’s a reason why it is popular. It’s touching, moving, inspiring, and does good for those who seem to be doing bad.

However, while channel surfing with some friends of ours, we happened upon an episode, and instead of being moved to tears, we were moved to laughter and cynicism. Now, that’s definitely due in part to the company we were with, but as I began to think more about the show, something struck me about the actual good that shows like this do, and all of the consequences, good and bad, that result from productions of this scale.

I offer these inquiries and observations as an honest critique to hopefully move us towards a better society, and a better way of philanthropy.

1. ALL REALITY SHOWS ARE CONTRIVED. THIS PROGRAM IS NO DIFFERENT. No matter how much you want to get away from it, what you see on the screen is not reality. So, while the appearance is that there are great things happening, we must remember it’s produced in such a way as to contrive that effect. That’s not real philanthropy, that’s good television. So, that for me, poses a bunch of questions as to what is actually happening, and what are the real consequences of benevolence of this form and through this kind of medium (cf. Marshall McLuhan).

2. CORPORATIONS ARE HELPING THOSE WHOM THEY MARGINALIZED IN THE FIRST PLACE UNDER THE AUSPICES OF BEING THEIR SAVIORS. This inquiry may be too cynical so I’ll be cautious. I sense that much of what ABC is doing is actually quite deceptive in their motives and in their driving values. There are plenty of arguments about capitalism and the kind of society it produces, intentionally or incidentally. Suffice to say, one could make the argument that the disparaging distance between the wealthy and the poor is caused by the very same capitalism that is producing these shows. Therefore, in effect, while they may be helping in small ways the individuals that are the focus of each episode, they are on a grander scale further perpetuating the systems and values that keep marginalized people poor in the first place. [1]

3. THE SHOW IS SUBVERSIVELY SELF-AGGRANDIZING. The product placement and self-promotion of the network is overwhelming. Again, while being cautious of overt cynicism, the show does appear to capitalize on the compassionate nerve of the audience, being coyish and manipulative for the ends of bigger and more profitable companies.

4. THE STANDARDS OF LIVING VALUES THAT ARE COMMUNICATED ARE OF UPPER CLASS PEDIGREE. Everything in the home is of the best quality, etc. Now, whenever you act compassionately and philanthropically, never use leftovers; always give the best. That way you ensure a more authentic and altruistic way of compassion. However, I have to ask what happens to a people or a community after they’ve been given the best of everything when they were unable to afford those items in the first place, and they’re probably incapable of sustaining that kind of standard over the long haul. Given the law of diminishing returns, will their joy ever be satisfied again if they eventually have to diminish their standards or quality of living?

5. THERE IS AN IMBALANCE OF RESOURCES, THUS DOING A LOT OF GOOD FOR VERY FEW, AND SO LITTLE GOOD FOR THE GREATER WHOLE. This is my main contention and question. Millions of dollars, thousands of man-hours, hundreds of companies, and one family. Is this what it takes to do good for people? If that’s the case, who is ever going to benefit except the very few, leaving behind the many, which puts us back into the imbalanced percentages of classism? Could not these resources be utilized and leveraged in different ways? In other words, which is better, huge benefit for very few, or small incremental benefits for many? And, if we only benefit a few, does that actually do more damage to the greater whole?

6. LONG-TERM RESULTS STUDIES HAVE NOT BEEN PUBLISHED. Now I recognize this is unfair for a program that is less than ten years old. However, if any “thus-far” studies or reports are available, I’d be very interested in seeing what kind of results this kind of big-bang-benevolence has on families and individuals in the long-term. Does this really help to create a better society, a better people, and a multiplying ethic of benevolence and philanthropy in the social conscious and in society? Or does it just spoil people? Do the tangible things actually improve their quality of living, or only their perceptions of their quality of living?


I think I have some immediate responses to some of the critical questions above. So, should anyone think that my questions and concerns are imbalanced, I’ll post a rebuttal to my own sentiments listed above soon. Again, these are questions, and I’d encourage some thoughtful responses to help us all understand better so we can behave better.

[1] I realize that the program’s focus is not just on poverty. Often it is of disease, or unfortunate events, etc. But, the show only chooses people who are impoverished.