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Does Cause Marketing Thwart Social Change?

One thing I didn’t cover last year when I wrote “How to do Cause Marketing Well” is whether cause marketing should even be done at all. But I found that a very interesting question to consider when reading “The Hidden Costs of Cause Marketing” in the Summer issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review. Angela M. Eikenberry argues that cause marketing is “consumption philanthropy,” connecting shopping with a social good, whereas high-levels of consumption in the developed world could be hurting philanthropists’ efforts to save rain forests, fisheries, etc. And it may be counterproductive in increasing empathy for people in need and a sense of responsibility to help.

Cause Marketing Generally Works for Marketers

I’ve been a fan of cause-related marketing programs (although I typically work with smaller entrepreneurial businesses and not the Project Red and Pink Ribbon campaigns in the market). It’s clear why those of us with a marketing perspective would find a lot to love. As MC Milker wrote in our Network, consumers are interested in products tied to a cause. Since consumers respond, corporations are getting involved. Eikenberry cites IEG Inc, reporting, “Cause marketing expenditures went from almost zero in 1983 to and estimated $1.3billion in 2006”.

But for a moment, let’s think about the perspective of nonprofit organizations and fundraisers (and maybe even philosophers). Eikenberry says cause marketing “devalues the moral code of philanthropy by making virtuous action easy and thoughtless”.

Can Philanthropy Leading to Social Change?

Eikenberry is skeptical of that consumers can right the world’s wrongs. When they are buying and fulfilling their material needs and desires, “they generally have little impetus to consider…’the public good'”. She sites two studies that show that when consumers have bought a cause-branded product they are less likely to make charitable contributions and feel they have “already done their philanthropic share”. So does cause-marketing decrease or increase the amount of money going to charity? ‘hard to know, but it is definitely shifting where the money goes.

Lots of Money is Being Raised, but Is it Less Than Could be Raised Otherwise?

Eikenberry is not just worried that charitable contributions may be reduced, she is also highly concerned that consumers are lulled into a false sense of doing good and are not being taught to have empathy, a sense of benevolence or a connection with people in need.

Personally, I wonder whether you can teach all that many people philanthropy anyway. I think it is possible within a family, school or smaller community, but I don’t know (but would like to know) if sustained social change is possible through philanthropy. And, if not, then isn’t it good to raise money from cause marketing campaigns (assuming that cause-related gear is not produced in sweatshops, etc)?

Possible Solutions

We might be able to mitigate some of the problems of cause marketing that Eikenberry cites, such as disproportionate attention to causes, incorrectly making them seem more wide-spread than other diseases or social ills, by better transparency and more watchdogs.

By reading the comments to the article, I found out about the buylesscrap site which encourages people to donate directly to the charities that are the recipients of donations from the RED campaign. Other websites, track sweatshop use by participants in the Buy Red campaign or controversial ingredients in foods participating in the Pink Ribbon campaigns.

Stanford Social Innovation Review

Eikenberry’s point is that if philanthropy is to bring about social change, then it can not just be a bandaid. Raising money by any means possible (and encouraging more consumption amongst the well-off) is not a sustainable means for social change and more equitable distribution of resources. She made many thought-provoking points. Read The Hidden Costs of Cause Marketing online, or for a pdf of Eikenberry’s article, go to the SSIR site.

Written by Leah Edwards

A strategy and marketing consultant, Leah enjoys highlighting the efforts of, and providing information for, social entrepreneurs. In her consulting practice, she works with cause-related businesses and enlightened investors--to see people succeed at doing good for the planet and local communities while doing good for themselves.

Leah has a B.S. in business from UC Berkeley and an MBA and Certificate of Public Management from Stanford University. More information at www.leahedwards.com

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