A recent PRWatch story discussed how corporations are increasingly turning to cause marketing to get around people's ability to tune out their daily deluge of advertising. Cause marketing, or "affinity marketing," is a sophisticated public relations strategy in which a corporation allies itself with a cause that evokes strong emotions in targeted consumers, like curing cancer, alleviating poverty, feeding the hungry, helping the environment or saving helpless animals. The relationship avails the company of a more effective way to grab the attention of their audience, by telling them compelling stories linked to the cause, for example tales of survival, loss, strength, good works, etc. Once the company gets your attention, it links its name and brands to the positive emotions generates by the cause. The company then leverages that emotion to get you to buy the stuff they've linked to the cause -- and improve its corporate image.
Cause marketing works, which is why its use is spreading like wildfire. The operative word that the whole idea turns on is "emotion," because the ability to manipulate people depends completely on generating an emotional connection that the company can exploit.