cause marketing

It’s popular these days to market products by promising that a donation will be made for every purchase to some charitable goal. This is called cause marketing, and it sounds like a great thing, and it is, when we buy the same product we might otherwise buy, and a few extra dollars or pennies make in into the coffers of a good organization, well, what’s not to like?

There are a number of potential gotchas. Tim recently pointed me at a great resource warning of abuse of pink ribbon marketing campaigns called Think Before You Pink. While the entire site is worth a look, I’d like to start by talking about their list of critical questions you should ask before buying a product marketed with a pink ribbon.

Take a look, and then I’ll make a few comments on each of their points. Most of these points are relevant to any sort of product marketed with a cause.

First, how much of each purchase goes towards breast cancer? This is a great question. They give an example of a DVD that sells for $15 and ask if a fifty cent donation for each purchase is “enough”, and say it’s up to you to decide. I think that’s smart, but it’s not always easy to make sense of what’s reasonable.

Let’s take an example: If a manufacturer sells a can of soup that sells in the stores for fifty cents and donates three, that doesn’t look great. It might look better, though, if you realize the manufacturer was only getting twenty-five cents for the soup, and that the can of soup cost twenty cents to make. I have no idea if those numbers of realistic, my point is not that some particular campaign was bad or good, just that sometimes hard to make sense of what a reasonable donation is.

We’d agree with Think as well that you should look at things like “is there a maximum donation and what is it?”, “Where does the money go?” and “will the donation happen automatically if I buy the product, or do I have to do more work?” Great questions.

Think’s last point, about pinkwashing, is the most sobering. If you buy a product in part because of the donation that will go along with it, it’s very much worth asking if the product itself is doing more harm than the donation will do good.

I think they missed a question that’s just as important, though.

Would you buy this product anyway? Certainly if you are already buying a product, you like it, you know you’re going to buy more, and so on, and they offer a donation with every purchase, well, sure, this might be a good time to stock up. If you always buy one brand of cola or another and it’s pretty much a toss-up which you’d buy on any given day, and one of them offers a sensible donation, sure, go for it. But if, instead, you wouldn’t have never bought this product otherwise, you’re almost certainly better off sending the charity a donation.

Pink isn’t the only color of questionable marketing tactics, either. Some AIDS activists have expressed concern about the opaque finances of the “(RED)” campaign (which brands products with that label with a promise to donate an unspecified portion of each sale towards the Global Fund, which fights AIDS in Africa.) Opacity aside, it’s relatively clear that (RED) campaigns do generate some real money towards AIDS relief, lack of complete transparency aside, the real question is, is it a drop in the bucket compared to the money being shelled out.

One hard-to-measure (and therefore frustrating to those of us at Effectivism) effect of these campaigns is awareness, the idea that campaigns like this make people more aware of these diseases and, as a result, lead to increased funding for research and treatment of those ideas. It seems fairly clear to me that AIDS and breast cancer have been two of the most “active” pushes for awareness, and cause marketing has certainly been one element of that. AIDS and breast cancer both are near the top of various measures of research dollars per death. Now, research dollars per death is a terribly crude and often misleading measure of research dollar fairness, but it seems plausible (not proven) to guess that awareness has had some effect on research funding. Even if that’s true, though, it’s hard to be sure how much of that awareness can be attributed specifically to cause marketing (as opposed to other awareness activities), and to what extent that excess research funding represents additional research money rather than simply taking research money from other, perhaps more urgent causes. I in no way mean to minimize AIDS or breast cancer, here I’m only trying to analyze how good or bad a thing cause marketing is.

I do think that cause marketing can be a positive, valuable thing, I don’t mean to come off as negatively as this post might seem. I like the idea of businesses finding ways to participate in the greater community, and making a difference. I’ve used cause marketing in the past in my own business, offering a donation with every print purchase over a season, and I like to think that it was a positive for my customer, for the charity and for me, all at the same time. But you should, as a consumer, ask informed questions to make sure you’re not getting ripped off, and probably limit your charity-driven purchasing (for the most part) to goods you would have bought anyway.

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