My Annual Defense of the Practice of Cause Marketing

Is cause marketing just a gimmick to induce people to buy or does it really benefit the needy?

That’s the tenor of a question posed recently by Bruce Bradley, fellow blogger, author of the forthcoming book ‘Fat Profits,’ and a food industry consultant.

Bradley concludes his blog post with this question: “What do you think of Big Food’s contributions to charities? Are they motivated by generosity, or is cause marketing just another way to manipulate consumers to get them eating more processed food?”

I suspect Bradley meant that as an either/or question. But my answer to it, as posed, is 'yes.'

There’s actually two points in Bradley’s critique/objection.

The first is subtle, but plain.

Bradley objects to capitalism; certainly as it’s practiced today, but also in general. Capitalism isn’t perfect. Too often it’s not even good. But no system of commerce and exchange has ever approached capitalism’s ability to lift humanity out of poverty.

What’s the difference between North and South Korea, after all? It’s one peninsula, one language, and one people divided arbitrarily at the end of World War Two along the 38th parallel. By the time the Korean War ended with the Armistice Agreement in 1953, Koreans on both sides of the 38th parallel were living in a third world country not much different than wide swaths of Africa today.

Now, 59 years later, North Korea… which pursued a course of collectivism and Communism… is still a part of the Developing World. South Korea…which opened its arms to capitalism and democracy…is more modern-looking than Los Angeles. It goes almost without saying that South Koreans enjoy a standard of living that is orders of magnitude better than North Koreans.

Do South Koreans have their complaints with capitalism and democracy? Of course.

Has capitalism proved to be uneven? Yup.

Would many South Koreans wish to trade places with their northern cousins? That’s doubtful.

A similar ‘natural experiment’ took place in Germany after WWII. While the East Germans… who like the North Koreans embraced Communism and collectivism… excelled at spying and political assassination, the West Germans excelled at capitalism.

As with the two Koreas, the two Germanys were one people, one language and one culture before the division of the East and West following WWII. While Dresden, in East Germany was particularly devastated, all of Germany was in ruins in those early post-war years.

At the war's end both sides begin to rebuild their countries and economies, each taking different approaches. The East Germans, it must be remembered, built the Berlin Wall in 1961 to keep its citizens from defecting to West Germany, which was manifestly more prosperous.

In other words, the East German approach could be seen as an obvious failure just 15 years after the war ended. During the 28 years the Berlin Wall stood, East Germany’s standard of living fell ever-further behind that of West Germany.

Are the hearts of every German gladdened by the way that capitalism is practiced? Hardly.

Would many Germans, from the East or West, voluntarily return to the sad old days of East Germany? Not many.

Bradley’s larger point isn’t just that modern capitalism, with all its powers can be vulgar and offensive. But also that cause marketing, a small sliver of capitalism, is unethical, unfair and manipulative.

“By using imagery of active, happy, and healthy people,” Bradley says, “Campbell’s successfully transforms its salty, canned soup into a cure-all for what ails you. Through the use of advertising and misleading cause marketing efforts, Campbell’s has created powerful messages that make people believe canned soup is good for you.”

‘Ed,’ who commented on Bradley’s post, writes: “This is more noticeable since the pink/Komen story came down the wire a couple weeks ago. I look at it from a cost/benefit angle and usually decide that I don’t want that product and I will support my charity directly. It’s interesting to see charities teaming with products that promote the problems that the charity is working to alleviate. Duh!”

I’ve had this conversation many times before. Cause marketing can be compelling. But nobody loses their will to choose when a company commits an act of cause marketing, as Ed ultimately points out.

Another responder to Bradley’s post, ‘Jessica,’ decries the use of mechanically-separated chicken in soups. “That’s soooo vile and shocking that its (sic) not illegal!,” she writes. Who among us believes that Jessica is unable to find commercial (or noncommercial) options for soup made with chickens that aren’t mechanically separated?

Bradley’s larger point is in the title of his post. Is “Cause Marketing Honest Help…?”

Maybe not. But does that matter?

Direct corporate donations to charities have been legal in the United States since 1952. And truly rigorous business cases for charitable giving have really only emerged in the last decade. That’s not to say that claims weren’t made about the business value of corporate philanthropy in prior years, only that "the discussions of the 'social responsibilities of business' are notable for their analytical looseness and lack of rigor," as Milton Friedman put it.

In short, for at least 50 years there was no really convincing business case to be made for corporate philanthropy. So if businesses weren't giving for mainly altruistic reasons, why were they giving?

But let’s ask Bradley’s question in another way: do a company’s motives matter when it comes to cause marketing?

My response is that any insistence that you, me or Campbell's give purely as an act of 'generosity' is in no small way cultural.

Under his entry for “tzedaka,” Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, in his book Jewish Literacy, recounts a hypothetical presented to thousands of Jewish and non-Jewish high school students.

It goes like this: Suppose a poor man approaches two men of equal wealth in desperate need of food and money for his family. The first person cries out in shared pain at the man’s situation and gives him $5. The second person does not respond emotionally. But because he feels obliged by his faith’s command to give 10 percent of his income he hands the man $100 before rushing off.

The students are then asked, who did the better thing? Rabbi Telushkin reports that between and 70 and 90 percent of high school students say that the man who gave from the heart did the better thing.

But that sensibility is largely foreign to Jews. Tzedaka literally translates to ‘justice,’ although it’s usually rendered as ‘charity.’ Jews, says Telushkin see tzedaka as “a form of self-taxation, rather than as a voluntary donation.”

Judaism says in effect, give ten percent. If the heart catches up, terrific. But whether it does or not, good has been done.

There's two sides in a charitable or cause marketing donation and if one still benefits, even if the other side is insincere, how is that wrong?

Interestingly, the Christian writer C.S. Lewis comes to a similar conclusion on the subject of charity in his book, Mere Christianity.

Charity has come to mean what used to be called alms, Lewis says. The reason is easy to tease out. If a man has charity, giving to the poor is one of the most obvious ways to act charitably. Just as rhyme is the most obvious thing about poetry, making it easy to confuse the two.

Instead, charity means love. Not the emotion, and not necessarily affection, but a state of will. “The rule for all of us is perfectly simple," says Lewis. "Do not waste your time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did.” The result is a virtuous cycle. You do something out of love… this act of will… which then often leads to affection. The affection in turn makes it easier to perform other acts of charitable love.

So let's ask Bradley’s question again: Does it matter whether or not corporate cause marketing is ‘honest help’?

Not to the needy who ultimately benefit from it.