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.
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