I Have a Bone to Pick About JWT's Trend Report Called 'Social Good'

Social Good,’ a white paper and research report from JWT, the marketing agency and division of WPP, has made a lot of appearances in my RSS reader since its release in September 2011 usually with some variation of a headline like ‘customers increasingly dubious about cause marketing.’

Color me dubious about JWT’s research methodologies, if not its conclusions.

'Social Good' is well-written, stuffed with a broad range of interesting examples and case studies from across the globe… a few from JWT clients… which is why I think of it as a lengthy white paper rather than something weightier. JWT calls it a trend report. Nonetheless, I suggest that everyone involved in cause marketing read 'Social Good.'

Moreover, I’m in no position to quarrel with many of its conclusions about the need for greater transparency in cause marketing, deeper integration between cause and sponsor, and more accountability from causes, having made all of these arguments myself in this very blog.

All that said ‘Social Good’ also something of a lie. It’s like that James Frey book 'A Million Little Pieces' that got a coveted spot in the Oprah Book Club and was presented as non-fiction memoir but turned out to be largely a work of fiction. Initially, Oprah defended ‘Pieces’ as true in spirit if not in fact, before beating Frey and his editor up pretty bad during an interview on her show in 2006.

Here’s why: to get to its conclusions about consumer discomfiture with cause marketing, JWT relied on two leading questions in a section they labeled the “Rise of Consumer Cynicism and Expectation for Transparency.” Here are all the questions presented under that rubric:
"I’m skeptical of brands that are aligned with charitable/social causes, their efforts seem somewhat halfhearted"

"I’m sometimes suspicious about how much of the money I donate actually goes to people in need, as opposed to management and administrative costs"

"Brands that are aligned with charitable/social causes need to do a better job of telling me how my donation is benefiting the cause"

"Brands and companies don’t disclose enough information about their charity/social cause programs"

"I do background research to learn exactly how my funds are allocated before donating money to a charitable organization"

"I wish there was an easier way to see the direct impact my time/monetary donations have"
JWT did more than survey people about cause marketing. There’s questions about consumer expectation for responsible business, consumer desire for brand involvement, consumer desires to have their voices heard in local decision making, and more. But only when asking people about cause marketing did JWT feel the need to ask loaded questions like numbers 1 and 2 above.

And yet even with the answer thoughtfully provided in question #1 just 52% of respondents agreed with it. Question #2, also loaded, presumes that administrative and management costs are ipso facto always bad and helps respondents to the same conclusion. JWT surveyed adults aged 18-66 in Canada, the UK and the United States.

JWT concludes from the answers to these questions that:
“Cynical and savvy, today’s consumers expect greater accountability from nonprofits as well as brands involved in cause marketing—e.g., exactly where the money is going and what impact it’s having. More transparency will mean more focus on effecting real change and less ‘goodwashing.’”
And that puts me in the awkward Oprah position. Yes cause marketing should feature greater transparency and accountability. That has always been the right answer. But not because some heavily-marketed opinion survey helped marketers to the right answer. Cause marketing must be more transparent and accountable because it’s the right thing to do. Because it’s the moral thing to do.

David Brooks, a columnist at the New York Times, recently reported the results from another study conducted by researchers at Notre Dame University and elsewhere and lead by sociologist Christian Smith. The study asked college-aged Americans about things like moral dilemmas they had faced. Only instead of providing multiple choice answers as in a college exam, or a sliding scale of agreement as in the JWT survey, Smith and his cohorts asked open-ended questions. What they found, Brooks writes, is that today’s 18-23-year-olds don’t have the “categories or vocabulary to do so.”
"‘Not many of them have previously given much or any thought to many of the kinds of questions about morality that we asked,’" Smith and his co-authors write. When asked about wrong or evil, they could generally agree that rape and murder are wrong. But, aside from these extreme cases, moral thinking didn't enter the picture, even when considering things like drunken driving, cheating in school or cheating on a partner. "’I don't really deal with right and wrong that often,’" is how one interviewee put it.”
Here’s a start, leading questions presented as fact are wrong, no matter if the end results happen to also be right.