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The Worst 11 Cause Marketing Campaigns of 2008

In every bad cause marketing campaigns, ads and research I’ve autopsied this year I’ve tried to find something to praise.

This is in stark contrast to the postmortems they do on all those CSI-style dramas that air on TV nearly nonstop in the States these days.

You’d never hear this dialogue on any of those shows:

“How did he die, doc?” “Well, he ate a high fiber diet that kept his blood cholesterol in a very healthy range. And it looks like he had the resting heart rate of Tour de France champion. But I’d say it was the bullet to his heart that killed him.”

But in the interest of fairness, I tried to do just that in 2008. Right now, though, in the interest of brevity, I'm just going to be snarky.

  • I couldn’t believe the little ad I saw in Cookie magazine for a fundraiser for startup charity called Cookies for Kids Cancer. The headline read: “But a Cookie, Save a Life.” As I wrote then, “my reaction was, ‘Oh no they just didn’t!’ The ad was one of seven on a single page; the kind the sales staff bundles together and sells for a bargain rate. So I automatically assumed that maybe Cookie magazine had put it together. After all, no charity would dare suggest that the purchase of a $3 cookie would actually save a human life. It’s exploitive and, well, a lie. And, critics be damned, cause-related marketing is not about lying.” It was an inauspicious start for a startup.
  • Back in April I was mostly on board with Tampax supporting orphans and other vulnerable children in Africa with their HERO campaign. But there were so many sometimes disparate elements that they didn’t always mesh. Maybe that was reflected in the creative, which struck me as too clever by half. The call to action read: “Use Your Period for Good.” Rjleaman commented on the post saying: “Maybe if they focused the campaign more narrowly, concentrate[ing] on the girls helping other girls there’d be less dilution and confusion.” Yes, quite.
  • Over time I have beat up charities for being perfunctory in their recognition of sponsors. But in August I took to task York Peppermint Patties for shortchanging its nonprofit partner the Young Survivors Coalition, which works with women with breast cancer who are younger than 40. The ad, found in Elle magazine, said only this in mice-type at the bottom of the ad: “York is a proud supporter of the Young Survivor Coalition.” How much better, I asked would it have been with this line? “York is a proud supporter of the Young Survivor Coalition, the organization for young women with breast cancer”?
  • The deeper I drilled down on a small ad in Newsweek magazine in August for a doll called Kimmie Cares, and benefiting a nonprofit outfit called Partners for a Cure Foundation, the more it looked like self-dealing. I’m not a lawyer… and I don’t play one on TV… so I can’t render a legal opinion. But the relationship between the nonprofit and doll makers looked just a bit too cozy to me.
  • In June I imagined a scenario wherein the winning ad agency pitched the UN World Food Programme an ad campaign using actress Drew Barrymore. “Imagine stark, beautifully-shot images of Drew feeding darling doe-eyed kids in Kenya in haunting black and white with a red cup emblematic of the WFP. The images will underscore that issue of hunger in the Developing World is black and white…” At that point, I wrote, “the UN World Food Programme managers should have kicked that agency to the curb.” The red was a design conceit, I wrote, “a way to introduce color into a campaign that should have had it from the start.”
  • There was nothing outwardly wrong with Home Depot and Habitat for Humanity signing a 5-year $30 million deal. It made perfect strategic sense, in fact. But the way it came about seemed cheep and tawdry to me since Home Depot’s CEO Frank Blake sleeps with a senior vice president at Habitat for Humanity, his wife Liz Blake. Of course both Blakes recused themselves from the decision and negotiations. The result, I wrote, was that Home Depot’s existing relationships with KaBoom, Red Cross and the Hands on Network were all likely to suffer, especially considering the failing economy and Home Depot’s declining sales.
  • In stark contrast to the strategic fit between Home Depot and Habitat for Humanity was the absurd fit between fashion designer Shoshanna Lonstein Gruss’s bikinis and the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. When you bought one of Gruss’ designated swimsuits at Bergdorf Goodman ‘proceeds’ from the sale went to the esteemed hospital. Cause marketing, I wrote, is now a big tent with room under the canvass for even artless and dorky campaigns.
  • Poking fun at competitors is always fun and I had a good time doing so at the expense of the big PR agency Ketchum. Ketchum published the results from a ridiculous survey called ‘Food 2020: the Consumer as CEO.’ One of the questions asked was: “If you were CEO of a global food company, which of the following, if any, would be your top priority?” Then Ketchum provided a universe of nine possible answers: “Improving human nutrition; Making food that is safer; Making foods that taste great; Making foods that cost less; Ending malnutrition; …Making a profit.” Those are listed in the order they finished in the survey. ‘Improving human nutrition’ finished first among all with 65 percent and ‘making a profit’ finished last with 33 percent. ‘Ending malnutrition?’ I questioned, “it would be analogous to ask Ketchum’s CEO… who is, after all, a professional communicator… to make a corporate priority of healing the communications rift between the Palestinians and the Jews.”
  • In October I created a minor firestorm (with emphasis on minor) when I asked ‘where are the Harry Slatkin lighters?’ Candle designer Slatkin along with Bath & Body Works had launched a campaign benefiting Autism Speaks. But the special lighters were nowhere to be found. Eventually Slatkin felt obliged to comment on the post to say that “the lighters sold out in most stores so fast and we were not able to reorder for the holiday period.” Availability wasn’t the only problem. The campaign used the ‘portion of the proceeds’ language that is so meaningless and unhelpful.
  • Also in October I reviewed Nestle Waters North America’s school label collection campaign called GoLife. But the front office of most schools already has a barrel for Campbell’s Soup labels and another one for General Mills Boxtops for Education. And so I openly wondered if there was room for GoLife as the third label campaign at the school dance, both physically and in terms of mindshare. “Third place isn’t necessarily a bad place to be,” I wrote. “But to be successful in third place you have to be really strongly positioned against the competition. I just don’t think Nestle’s done that here.”
  • Henkel… a consumer products company… also had a school campaign that seemed not to have learned any lessons from Campbell’s and General Mills. In a doubletruck FSI in August Henkel promoted an essay contest that awarded one lucky school $25,000. The subject of the essay contest asked what your school could do with $25,000? An approach that was certain to turn into a pity-fest. The prize amount was just too little. I wrote: “For one school $25,000 is a meaningful amount. But for the promotion, one prize of $25,000 is almost a joke in a country where there are 55,965 public and private schools in grades K-12.”


KyNam Doan said…
Thanks Paul. What better way to stand of the shoulders of failures :). There are a few here I haven't heard of.

The New York Peppermint Patties ones is plain old absurd!
Anonymous said…
You dare to criticize a cause marketing campaign involving BIKINIS! Your offhand crticism has setback the industry at least ten years! Please turn in your Halo Mr. Paul R. Jones.


A One Time Admirer
I'll certainly turn in my halo.

But like Miss Gruss's bikinis, it doesn't cover much real estate.
Lateef said…
Man - great post...this is what happens when you get TOO MUCH money funding NGOs that want to be different and want to feel good about's like saying:

"everyone look! we're helping kids with cancer - oh and look we're sporting a little pink ribbon so we support women with breast buy our product...go know you can trust us!"

Your point about the UN World Food Programme seems absurd on the surface cause the programme is a success and they really want to help...and there's nothing wrong with being 'artsy-fartsy'...if anything, I think it can only help --- but this is a case of poor judgement on many levels -- and it does in fact seem very conceited...

Thanks for bringing light to this stuff.
Hi Lateef;

Thanks for your comment.

When I wrote the word 'conceit' I meant not that anyone involved had an excessively high opinion of themselves.

Rather, I meant it in the sense that the ad used the red cup in purely decorative manner.

That's about the sixth or seventh meaning of conceit, so I apologize for being unclear.

Thanks, again.

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