Opinion
April 29, 2012

Charities Shouldn’t Let Corporate Marketers Set the Agenda

The other night I was watching television when a Starbucks commercial appeared, urging viewers to buy a bracelet to help create jobs in America. What? They’re kidding, right?

Alas, no. Turns out the latest buy-a-bracelet-for-charity campaign is called “Create Jobs for USA.”

Starbucks customers can pay $5 (or more if they are feeling particularly charitable) for a red, white, and blue bracelet, and proceeds go to the Opportunity Finance Network, a nonprofit that helps small-business owners get low-cost loans.

The campaign, which started in November and is only now getting a big promotional push, has the same problems that burden so many drives that tie charity to the consumer marketplace.

Perhaps most obvious is that such campaigns have little to do with the company’s main purpose and often seem hypocritical. In this case, Starbucks (like Wal-Mart and other large retailers) has been criticized for forcing mom-and-pop stores out of business, yet its charitable campaign supports these very small businesses.

Lack of information for consumers is also a problem. People who purchase the bracelets won’t know for sure how much of their donation, or even if any money, is going to charity. Starbucks says that the full $5 (or more) will go directly to the Opportunity Finance Network.

Yet time and again, companies have been opaque about their charitable-giving structure, or they have made clear that they have placed caps on the amount that will go to charity but continue to sell the campaign-related products long after the charitable goal has been reached. 

But of greatest concern is that the Starbucks campaign demonstrates what is fundamentally wrong with the widespread use of cause marketing. It relieves governments and corporations of their responsibilities for solving large-scale social problems and puts those problems squarely on the backs of consumers and charities.

Although companies started reaching out to charities in the 1980s, when American Express coined “cause-related marketing” and instituted the co-mingling of charity with consumerism for its campaign to help the Statue of Liberty raise renovation funds, the idea has taken off in a big-dollar way only in the past decade. That’s in part because consumers have changed what they demand from the brands they buy: They want to purchase products and services that are embedded with their personal values. What’s more, companies want to demonstrate that they are good corporate citizens.

As consumers started stepping up their demands, in no small part through social media, cause marketing moved out of the public-relations department.

Now the campaigns are largely operated from corporate marketing departments. And with that switch, raising money for charity became tied to making money for the bottom line—causing product objectives to supersede humanitarian ones.

The consequences are substantial. For charities, the issue becomes one of marrying their agendas to the marketing goals of the consumer company.

The corporation holds the purse strings, and with that comes the power in the relationship. Even with the power imbalance, these campaigns can be beneficial for large charities and those that are most marketable. However, it is often detrimental for small charities, local organizations, and ones that do not have a major celebrity promoter.

What’s more, charities that are not female-centric shouldn’t expect to attract much interest from corporate marketers. Women are the primary purchasers of consumer products, so charities related to issues that concern them—education, health, children, the environment—are most likely going to find a consumer partner. Groups that are noncontroversial also have an edge: Curbing childhood obesity is good; gay marriage or Planned Parenthood, not so much.

Charities have figured this out, and some of them have become marketing machines.

Organizations like Susan G. Komen for the Cure and Livestrong do fine work, but they take attention (and money) away from other charities focused on causes that may be as deserving.

An obvious example is Alz­heimer’s disease. The aging of the baby boomers and the significant resources needed to care for elderly patients is going to be a major issue. But how do you make this look pretty for a magazine ad or a commercial on “American Idol”? What consumer company wants to tie into this type of charity when it is so much easier to put a pink ribbon on a package or create a bracelet that helps consumers feel good about themselves? More important for the health of our society, should we allow the market to determine what charities get the most support?

The other danger of these marketing campaigns is they let shoppers check charity off their to-do list. Since people give at the supermarket counter when they buy products that benefit charitable causes, they figure they don’t need to write a check. Reducing direct donations is the unintended consequence of these campaigns, and it could not have been otherwise: Marketers created these programs and promoted them to emphasize how easy it is to help charity by purchasing products consumers wanted anyway. Proponents of this strategy argue that they are getting donations from people who would never write a check, but nobody has proved that.

Nor is it true or a good thing that corporate marketing deals make giving easy. In the glare of the supermarket, we are unlikely to think about the poor and the hungry or the decaying environment or the collapse of our educational system. Sure, we can buy Yoplait yogurt, but is buying the yogurt, licking the lids, putting them in an envelope, and mailing them to the company to benefit breast-cancer charities any easier than making a monthly donation on your credit card—something that is more sustainable (and ultimately more sanitary)?

Sooner or later, consumers will figure out they are being duped, and that will cause a major backlash for both charities and companies.

Misleading consumers comes in several guises. Using logos and calling them a seal of approval and not an endorsement, as Sierra Club does with Clorox’s Green Works products, is deceptive at best.

Worse is leading consumers to believe they have made a donation through a purchase, when in reality the donation is not generated until the purchaser goes online and provides personal information. Under this scenario, either the product company gets increased sales and free consumer data or it gets increased sales and doesn’t have to make a donation. That’s a double win for the corporation but not for the consumer or the charity.

When we attach charity to consumerism—something that is based on serving individual needs and not fulfilling social goods—we become inured to true suffering.

Cause marketing may make a small dent in feeding the hungry, paying for medical research, or healing some of America’s other big problems. But in achieving small goals, it does more serious harm by obfuscating the problems that charities were created to solve.

Hunger is an issue of joblessness, for example. Buying a bracelet from Starbucks isn’t going to solve either of those.

Mara Einstein, an associate professor of marketing at Queens College, is author of “Compassion Inc.: How Corporate America Blurs the Line Between What We Buy, Who We Are, and Those We Help.”