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“Moral robbery.” That’s Mara Einstein’s rebuke to those of us -- perhaps nearly all of us? -- who have felt good about buying a pink dress to support the “Race for the Cure,” wearing a LIVESTRONG bracelet, choosing yogurt with “Boxtops for Education,” or making some other purchase in part because we were pleased by the thought that some of the purchase price would go toward some good cause.

Einstein is an associate professor of media studies at Queens College, and she discusses the moral implications of so-called “cause-related marketing” in her just-released book, Compassion, Inc: How Corporate America Blurs the Line between What We Buy, Who We Are, and Those We Help.

Einstein argues that when we are persuaded to buy something because some of the price will go to charity, we’re not only doing little good for the cause (because usually only a tiny amount goes to the charity) but we’re actually doing ourselves moral harm:

Shopping to trigger charity . . . both negates our ability to strengthen our moral core and motives us away from philanthropic acts. . . . When writing a check, you decide who it should go to and why you care enough to give your hard-earned money to that cause. When you volunteer, you give of yourself. . . . Shopping not only eliminates these moral acts, it also gives us the false sense that we’ve already done our good deed, our mitzvah.

Einstein makes examples of McDonald’s Happy Meals that are promoted to mothers with the promise that some of the cost (one penny per Happy Meal!) supports Ronald McDonald House Charities and the Donna Karan fragrance pureDKNY that is promoted with the promise that DKNY is supporting CARE. In both advertising campaigns, the term “simple” is employed to powerful effect: Happy Meals are promoted with the tag “the simple joy of giving” while pureDKNY is promoted with an ad that ends “pure and simple.”

The word “simple” in both ads seems meant to flatter consumer aspirations with the suggestion that these products are part of a sophisticated, contemporary aesthetic. At the same time the word “simple” suggests that it’s possible to help others by merely buying these products, thus serving the marketer’s end of persuading consumers to buy a product that they might otherwise purchase with some guilt either because the food isn’t healthy or perfume is such a luxury.

I spoke to Einstein last week and asked her whether marketers are tricking us or instead we’re tricking ourselves into thinking we can so easily do good. She replied:

No one set out for anyone to be tricked or to do anything malicious: marketers have implemented cause-related marketing campaigns to make us feel good about buying consumer goods while doing something good for the world. They’re smart people who are good at what they do, so we can’t blame consumers for buying into cause-related marketing. And marketers do believe they’re doing good as well as selling a product. But marketers only see it in the context of a quarterly bottom line. It’s not a single purchasing decision that’s the problem or the effects of a single quarter for one marketer: it’s in the cumulative consequences that we see arising from people being separated from doing good themselves.

In short, one problem is a lack of mindfulness about the long-term consequences of this aspect of consumer culture and a failure to recognize that true philanthropy cannot be conducted with the swipe of credit card.

A second key problem is the lack of transparency on the part of the companies involved in cause-related marketing that gets consumers to do something beyond making a purchase such as participating in a “Walk for the Cure.” As Einstein explained to me:

The problem with this is the lack of transparency about where the money is going. Most money goes to promote the walk itself, so it turns into a self-fulfilling event: the walks promote the walks. Marketers set these up as ongoing, annual events that women get involved in and invite their friends to participate in year after year. So it becomes not a one-day event, or a three-day event, but something that women have in their mind all year. While women are participating in these events for a number or reasons -- raising awareness, support of a friend or loved one with the disease, even getting in shape -- they are also unwitting promoters of the corporate or charity brand, keeping these organizations’ names top of their mind all year long.

Einstein’s message is especially powerful because she is not cynically hostile to corporate America or the free market; this book is not, by any stretch about bashing corporate America (importantly, Einstein has served in executive positions at major corporations like NBC and MTV). Einstein notes:

It is not the mixing of commerce and caring per se that should concern us. Rather, it is turning true human suffering into a sales pitch for a disposable consumer product. It’s a matter of emphasis.

Given the effectiveness of cause-related marketing, we’re likely only to see more of it. Einstein’s book is a powerful call to be more attentive to whether we’re letting ourselves try to be philanthropic on the cheap by “giving” to others when we’re really just getting something for ourselves.

1 thought on “The moral fraud of “giving” while shopping”

  1. Amy Kass says:

    An excellent article about real questions: When is philanthropy really a demonstration of one’s love of–or goodwill toward–human beings, i.e., the literal meaning of philanthropy? Must one be self-denying in order to be philanthropic? Does consumer linked philanthropy really cultivate self-interest–selfishly and simply–or is it a species of self-interest properly understood? All worth pondering.

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