Pay me for this piece and I’ll donate 1% to Writers Without Enough Income*
Some post-Super Bowl thoughts on this whole “cause marketing” thing
Two Super Bowl LII ads stood out for me even if they didn’t make the major best/worst lists:
In Hyundai’s moving “Hope on Wheels,” folks met pediatric cancer patients they helped by purchasing a Sonata, Elantra or Tucson.
Stella Artois’ “Taps” featured Matt Damon extolling how we can provide desperately needed clean water to the developing world if we just buy a six-pack of the Belgian pilsner made by Interbrew International B.V. (a subsidiary of the global Anheuser-Busch InBev with $45 billion in 2016 revenues).
The Stella ad was also stirring, even with the irony whiplash about spending $5 for a chalice of beer so children in countries where $5 is a good week can have potable water.
Most Super Bowl viewers love the ads. Some watch the game mainly for the ads. But we’re hip to the jive, not easily manipulated.
Lest I sound cynical, I appreciate how the Hyundai and Stella ads spread the word to America’s biggest audience about important causes, and perhaps inspire more people to understand the plight of others and help by buying certain products.
But I worry that overuse of “cause marketing” is diminishing its impact.
Don’t get me wrong: I love the concept. Instead of writing checks to select charities, companies fulfill their “corporate social responsibility” by involving consumers in the giving, and making it fun, easy and rewarding for everyone.
American Express gets credit for pioneering cause marketing in the 1980s with its pledge to donate 2% of purchases on the card to charitable causes. Grocers, drug stores and other retailers went on to adopt “pin-pad” giving where you can contribute a dollar or a few to charity partners when you swipe your card to check out.
Today’s cause-marketing creativity is astounding. Like Walgreens’s partnership with United Nations that gives a flu shot to a needy child when you get your flu shot. Look at sites like doublethedonation.com, selfishgiving.com or causegood.com, or just Google “best cause marketing” like I did.
Cause marketing keeps spreading because it’s a classic win-win-win:
· Consumers prefer do-gooder companies. Shoppers today feel better about spending with companies associated with causes they believe in, as long as they don’t feel snaked by bad companies trying to buy good will. If inspired by the company and cause, and feel it’s authentic, many consumers will pay more or buy more. It’s called “charitable shopping.” Any spending guilt is mitigated by the pleasure of helping others.
· Companies burnish their brands. The “halo effect” of supporting a cause buttresses the company’s reputation, and helps employees and other stakeholders feel good by association. Cause marketing also can help salve reputation wounds from foul-ups.
· Charities can help more people. They welcome the bigger flow of needed funds for urgent causes.
Many policy types celebrate the new symbiotic relationship between for- and non-profit bedfellows. Some worry about it being misused by those who oppose public programs that help the less fortunate. Cynics suggest the deal suffers from a power imbalance. Like when alligators let plover birds clean their teeth — the birds serve at the pleasure of the gators until the jaw clamps down.
But seeing the Hyundai and Stella Super Bowl ads (and addled by Sam Adams, Yuengling, clam chowder and cheese steaks), I started having other questions about this cause marketing.
1. If I don’t buy that car or beer, am I hurting people who need help? If I buy a different sedan or brew that doesn’t help them, what kind of selfish monster would I be?
2. Like Hyundai, a company called Love Your Melon will donate part of the proceeds from my purchase of a $40 Pom Beanie to fight pediatric cancer. And like Stella Artois, Lula’s Garden — specializing in succulent gift boxes — will donate to Water.org if I buy a $35 Jewel Garden. I love the idea of supporting small crafty businesses, even if I don’t, and I know every bit of support counts. But should I try for a bigger bang for my moral buck by purchasing from larger cause-supporting companies that can afford Super Bowl ads?
3. If my heart goes out to a cause that Porsche supports and has committed a portion of the $120,000 that a new 911 Carrera costs, can I justify going into ruinous debt to buy the car because I care so much about the cause? Can I morally justify not buying the Porsche? When even 1% of the proceeds could provide life-giving potable water and whatnot to millions of poor people forever? Who the hell am I to deny them?
4. Under the new Trump/GOP tax bill that confounds tax experts while devastating the wealthy and delivering a windfall to the poor and middle class, can my accountant figure out a way to write off my new Porsche? And everything I charity shop for? Wait — what? The GOP tax bill discourages charitable deductions?
If #4 is true, it seems I’ll need to get more miles from my current sedan. *Unless readers don’t get the joke and are fooled into paying me for this piece. If so, I pledge 100% of the proceeds to buying that Porsche.
Jeffrey Denny is a Washington writer