Your Charity Should Be So Lucky

Recently both the Chicago Tribune and the Chronicle of Philanthropy (registration required for both) have published stories critical of cause-related marketing.

The Tribune article, by Blythe Bernhard (free here), came at the end of October, National Breast Cancer Awareness Month in the States. She mentions products that carry a breast cancer cause-theme: KitchenAid, tweezers, Serta mattresses, Quilted Northern toilet tissue (illustration is from October 2005), and others. And, she makes it clear that these promotions can be effective at moving product off the shelves.

But she also derides a promotion by 3M in 2004. The company spent $500,000 putting up a 7-story pink ribbon, made of Post-It notes, in New York City's Times Square. 3M also made a $300,000 donation to a breast cancer charity. The implication is that all $800,000 should have all gone to a worthy charity rather than frittering away 5/8ths of it on a cheap publicity stunt.

If it was my charity I'd want all $800,000. But I'd be darn happy with $300,000 and a publicity stunt that's worth at least two or three times what 3M paid for it.

Your charity should be so lucky to have a sponsor willing to give money as well as invest so heavily in publicity or advertising.

Bernhard also quotes Samantha King, author of "Pink Ribbons Inc: Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy" and an associate professor of women's studies at Queens University in Kingston, Ontario, as saying, "As long as people think that by buying something they can help solve the breast cancer problem, they're being misled," she says. "If we could shop into a cure for breast cancer, it would be cured already."

Before I go on, I should declare my bona fides on the topic of cancer. My father died of cancer. My mother narrowly survived breast cancer. An older sister just finished chemo. Another sister survived kidney cancer. My mother's father and one of her sisters both died of leukemia. My mother-in-law is in the seventh year of a fight against cervical cancer.

When my dad was diagnosed, we were all but ashamed to say the word 'cancer' in polite company. There was a stigma attached to it. And, it was all but fatal back then. Now more than 30 years later, my mother-in-law's cancer is, in effect, a chronic disease like diabetes, or high blood pressure. There's no cure for her, just treatments. And while it goes without saying that the treatments are no picnic, she would say her life is nonetheless rewarding.

Some people are cured of cancer. Some die. Some people, like my mother-in-law, are in limbo. But after being attuned to the disease for more than 30 years, it's evident to me that the effort to find a complete and permanent cure is a long-term effort.

It seems that Professor King thinks the only role appropriate for us in the fight against cancer is as taxpayers or donors. That is, we should just turn over our tax money and donations to the clinicians and the researchers searching for cure. But whether as taxpayers or donors we all already do that, don't we?

I just don't see much wrong in also fighting cancer as consumers via cause-related marketing. The professor's probably right, the money generated from my purchase of Quilted Northern toilet tissue probably won't put the researchers over the top in their search for the cure. But I still need toilet paper. And if a few nickels go to help fund the fight, well bully!

As cause-related marketers we cannot abuse the trust of the public. Our cause-related marketing promotions must be transparent. If you're not building your cause-related marketing promotions that way, well then, send me examples so I can mock them in this blog.

But in my view, the real danger isn't that the public is being mislead by cause-related marketing. The real danger is that they won't be engaged in the fight against cancer or the improvement of some other social ill in any role besides as a taxpayer.

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