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Do Companies Have to Be Sinless Before They Can Practice Cause Marketing?

A post on the website Just Means from Akhila Vijayaraghavan is critical of cause marketing and it made me wonder, should the impious ever be permitted to pray?

Should teachers wait until their students know the alphabet before allowing them to speak? Should I, as a father, wait until I’m emotionally available to my kids before I listen to what they're telling me? Is Nobel Laureate Al Gore the only person who can legitimately donate to Greenpeace or the Sierra Club? And, while we're on the topic, could any company ever be morally upright enough to make donations to a good cause via cause marketing?

Of Kellogg’s Share You Breakfast effort, Vijayaraghavan writes:
“Some of the products that Kellogg (sic) has been promoting as part of its campaign includes Frosted Flakes and Nutri-Grain bars. However both products have been criticized for the high levels of sugar that they contain. Frosted Flakes mascoted by Tony the Tiger contains 11gms of sugar per three-fourths cup serving. In addition to sugar, it also contains high-fructose corn syrup.

“Nutri-Grain bars which are promoted as a healthy breakfast or snack option contain more than 30 largely synthetic ingredients. Again, it contains HFCS and 11 gms of sugar. It is advertised containing 'real fruit,' 'made with real fruit' and 'good source of fiber.' However it only contains fruit puree and 3 grams of fiber.”
If sugar and low fiber is the hangup with Share Your Breakfast, what about a company that actually makes low-fiber sugar, namely C&H? C&H is a long-time sponsor of Share Our Strength’s Great American Bake Sale. Since hunger in the developed world is often characterized not by low weight but by obesity which leads to malnourishment, no doubt Ms. Vijayaraghavan would say that C&H has some cheek to donate to an anti-hunger cause. That’s a softball just hanging in the air and waiting for her to swing away.

But Ms. Vijayaraghavan doesn’t just see bad nutrition in Kellogg's Share Your Breakfast, she sees wholesale corporate hypocrisy, and cheap hypocrisy at that:
“Marketing itself as the purveyor of healthy food items for children and actively targeting them however, is a different story. At the end of the day, regardless of the CSR spin Share Your Breakfast is an advertising campaign. According to a New York Times article, it is their largest integrated marketing effort, with ads in broadcast, print, digital and social media. The Times reports that Kellogg (sic) spent $464.9 million on advertising from January through September 2010 alone, which pales in comparison to the $200,000 they spent towards feeding hungry school children.”
She’s really working up her dudgeon here…
“The food industry is full of examples of companies saying one thing and doing another. But really: Put your flakes where your mouth is Kellogg (sic), and come up with a CSR initiative that we can believe.”
By rights, Ms. Vijayaraghavan should have put a link to a place where Kellogg's has claimed to be a purveyor of healthy food items somewhere in those two paragraphs. But never mind that.

The simple fact is, Kellogg's does purvey healthy food. It also makes and sells unhealthy food. But should Kellogg's wait until its whole product line is sugar-free, high-fiber, low-fat and chock-full of good cholesterol before the company engages in cause marketing?

Or, to put it another way, can only the Pope pray?

There is one implication there in the last sentence of Ms. Vijayaraghavan’s post with which I have no argument. We do want to believe in the goodness of companies. My question is, do they have to be ‘sinless’... whatever that might mean... before we can believe in them?


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