New Book ‘Compassion, Inc.’ Examines Cause Marketing: Making a Difference or Manipulation?

GUEST AUTHOR BLOG by Mara Einstein author of "Compassion, Inc.: How Corporate America Blurs the Line Between What We Buy, Who We Are and Those We Help."

Have you seen KONY2012—the 30-minute viral video about Joseph Kony who recruited children in Uganda to be part of his Lord’s Resistance Army? If not, it’s likely your children or your grandchildren did. Viewers of all ages were enraged by the atrocities revealed in the film and forwarded it by email, Facebook and Twitter. Many were also moved to buy the bracelet (sold out), and some bought the $225 promotional kit, an item no longer offered on the Invisible Children website.

Compassion Inc.
Compassion Inc.

This charitable campaign is emblematic of how our thinking about philanthropy has fundamentally shifted in the past ten years because of a confluence of fast-paced media technologies and the integration of charity with the consumer marketplace. While this video was successful in bringing awareness to the cause, it also presented activism as easy (forward the video) and solutions as fashionable (buy the bracelet or t-shirt).

KONY 2012 is tied to a bigger marketing phenomenon called cause marketing. As I discuss in my book,"Compassion, Inc.: How Corporate America Blurs the Line Between What We Buy, Who We Are and Those We Help,"cause marketing is when a corporation asks you to buy a product and a portion of the proceeds from the sale of that product will go to charity. Tying charity to products has become the Madison Avenue norm. According to the 2010 PRWeek/Barkley PR Cause Survey, 97% of marketing executives consider cause marketing to be a valid business strategy, and two thirds of brands are already implementing it. Seems like a great idea, right? Corporations sell products and charities get money.

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.

Let’s take, for example, pink ribbons—the ubiquitous logo universally understood as the symbol for raising money and awareness about breast cancer. What you might not know is that there are dozens of pink ribbon symbols: Some belong to established foundations like Susan G. Komen for the Cure or the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, but some do not. These “unaffiliated logos” are likely not contributing to research or awareness, but only to the bottom line of the corporation that put it on their product. Even when attached to a reputable charity, your purchase may not trigger a charitable donation. For instance, most companies put a cap on the amount of money they will donate to a charity. XYZ company might advertise they are donating $50,000 through the sale of jewelry to Komen. But—and this is a big but—they will never tell you when that $50,000 goal is reached. As an added bonus, the corporation gets the tax write-off based on your largesse. Win-win for the corporation.

Not as much for the consumer.

I am all for increasing awareness and raising funding for charities that need it. However, what has happened in the last 10 years is that, with the marriage of charity and consumerism, the focus has been moved from those in need—real people with real problems—to the consumer products that can attract the most popular celebrities and the charities that can attract the most corporate sponsors. The outcome is that the charity with the best marketing wins, even if it’s not the charity that does the best work or needs the most funding or attention. Think about Alzheimer’s disease—something we rarely hear about in fundraising circles—versus breast cancer, which we can’t avoid. Pink ribbons are pretty and look good in advertising; an aging population, unfortunately, does not.

Cause marketing claims to give consumers the power to solve society’s ills with an easy credit card purchase. This fuels the perception that there’s no need for government, large institutions, or individuals to do more – a false and destructive message. The big problems in our world, like hunger and homelessness and lousy educational systems, are simply not going to be solved by watching a video or buying a bracelet.

Mara Einstein is the author of, "Compassion, Inc.: How Corporate America Blurs the Line Between What We Buy, Who We Are and Those We Help" and is an Associate Professor of Media Studies at Queens College. She is also the author of Brands of Faith: Marketing Religion in a Commercial Age. She has worked as a senior marketing executive in both broadcast and cable television as well as at major advertising agencies.

Email me at bullishonbooks@cnbc.comAnd follow me on Twitter @BullishonBooks