Marketing to Distrust

EnronGoldman Sachs, Halliburton, Monsanto, Blackwater, Bank of America, Citigroup, Cigna, Aetna, Enron, Arthur Andersen, Mercury Insurance, Philip Morris ...These are just a few corporate names that engender feelings of distrust, anger and betrayal. They represent scandals, greed, blatant disregard for public welfare, lavish spending of taxpayer money and other negatives, and serve as reminders about how corporate wrongdoing has brought shame on our country and harmed millions.

But as the public grows more distrustful of big corporations, corporations are fighting back by evolving more clever and sophisticated forms of public relations. Their goal? To manipulate public attitudes and assure that widespread negative feelings don't block their ability to do business. Increasingly, corporations are engaging in variations on the theme of "corporate social responsibility," to try and persuade us that they can be trusted again.

Cause Marketing Takes Off

We got a warning about what's coming down the pike the other day when Advertising Age magazine published an article about an PR executive named Carol Cone. Most people outside PR circles have probably never heard of her. The article said that Cone is leaving her long-established, successful, eponymously-named ad agency, and is moving to the Edelman public relations firm, one of the biggest PR companies in the world. The headline said, "Carol Cone, Leader in Corporate Goodness, Joins Edelman."

"Corporate Goodness"?

James O'Keefe on Fox NewsCone is credited with being the inventive mind behind a PR strategy called "cause marketing," in which a corporation teams up with a reputable non-profit group to raise money for a popular cause. Corporations use cause marketing as a sales booster and an image-management tool (pdf). Perhaps the most prominent current example of cause marketing is the widespread "pinking" of breast cancer. A long list of corporations now sell pink products to promote breast cancer awareness, and send a portion of the proceeds to the Susan G. Komen Foundation. This massive pinking campaign has drawn criticism for going too far by leading companies to sell "pink" products that can actually harm people or degrade the environment, like guns, cars and water in plastic bottles containing bisphenol-A. This disappointing side of the breast cancer awareness campaign has even given rise to a new word: "pinkwashing", defined by the group Breast Cancer Action, as a term used critically of corporate campaigns and practices, in which the sponsoring companies position themselves as leaders in the effort to eradicate breast cancer while engaging in practices that may contribute to rising rates of the disease.

Authentic Diseases, but often Disingenuous Marketing Ploys

Cone was the creative mind behind the "Go Red for Women" campaign, in which the Rite Aid drug store chain teamed up with the American Heart Association (AHA), nominally to raise awareness of heart disease in women. Rite Aid availed its customers of the opportunity to buy little red paper dresses for a dollar each, with the proceeds going to AHA. (Saving female anatomical parts seems to engender special enthusiasm, as evidenced by crass new bumper stickers that urge people to "Save the Ta Tas.")

Overlooked in the "Go Red for Women" campaign was one giant, glaring, disingenuous flaw: it allowed the Rite Aid drug store chain to claim that they cared about women's cardiac health while openly continuing to profit from selling the biggest cause of heart disease in women: cigarettes. Astonishingly, a Rite Aid press release about its sponsorship of the Go Red campaign listed many heart health tips for women, but failed completely to even mention that quitting smoking can markedly reduce a woman's chances of heart disease. Rite Aid was of course completely aware that it was selling a product that causes diseases in women and everyone else, since the company signed contracts with R.J. Reynolds, Brown & Williamson and other tobacco companies indemnifying the chain (protecting it) against legal claims of harm arising from its cigarette sales.

Cone's Take on Cause Marketing

In a November, 2009 New York Times article, Cone pointed out that cause marketing is growing because consumers can tune out the deluge of traditional ads that bombard them every day. According to Cone, this means marketers should no longer market to people. Instead, she advises, they need to entice people through storytelling, and "what better story to tell than one of benefiting a charity or worthwhile cause, providing that 'it's a real story ... something authentic that makes sense.''

Dressing Up Corporations

bowtieEngaging in cause marketing helps a corporation put on a "good citizen suit" by allowing it to associate with a reputable non-profit organization. This lends the corporation a patina of caring and social responsibility. A reputable nonprofit's hard-earned good reputation has a "coat-tail effect," sweeping feelings of respectability towards the participating corporation. This gives people -- and legislators -- a better feeling about doing business with the corporation, and helps even questionable companies remain in the business mainstream.

Richard Edelman of the Edelman PR agency told Ad Age that the loss of trust by consumers in companies creates "an opportunity for PR shops to grab more marketing responsibility from other marketing service sectors." Translated, this means that as traditional advertising loses the ability to persuade, corporations are increasingly turning to PR to implement "social responsibility" programs that pinkwash, greenwash, greedwash and use other, more sophisticated strategies to buddy up to good causes and burnish corporate reputations, or, in the case of a corporation that hasn't yet done huge harm, to create a buffer against a potential eventual public backlash.

In effect, the PR business is setting itself up to leverage and capitalize on consumers' growing lack of trust in business. It's pretty twisted.

Maybe We're Jaded ...

It's our job to examine PR ploys and expose manipulative schemes and plots. We're not alone in recognizing that corporations use "cause marketing" as a tool to palliate image threats, influence public policy and guarantee wealthy, often harmful corporations keep a seat at the policymaking table by allowing them to look like responsible actors. But we want to be fair.

Not all corporate social responsibility efforts are necessarily bad. But real corporate social responsibility should start at home. Before a company takes up with a non-profit group, gives to a cause, pinks its products or funds a foundation and then advertises all of this wonderful largesse, it should first behave responsibly toward society. It should pay a living wage, treat its employees fairly, offer adequate benefits and provide its workers with a safe and healthy workplace. It should not engage in fraudulent activity, bully or intimidate public officials either above or below board, co-opt political processes, or harm the environment. If it does all this and then still wants to contribute by helping or giving to causes, that's great, but it would be nice if they tried not to blow their horn too loud about it.

Ask Questions, Get Answers

Flying pigUntil the day corporations truly become socially responsible and trustworthy, though, we at will continue to urge readers to be skeptical about PR schemes like cause marketing, strategic corporate philanthropy and other thinly-veiled, often manipulative PR efforts.

When you detect a cause marketing campaign, start asking questions, like how much of a product's purchase price is really going to the cause at hand. Ask yourself whether you are buying a product because you want it or need it, or because a feel-good marketing campaign used cute colored ribbons or other props to bring it to your attention? If you really want to support a cause, ask yourself if could you do even more good if you gave your money directly to the cause, rather than "giving" by buying a product?

We hope these questions, and our take on cause marketing, will help people weed out corporate image management schemes from the truly worthwhile and better ways that exist to help good causes.


What a great article succinctly explaining a new marketing ploy. I've always viewed with some skepticism advertisers who market in Pride parades and LGBT publications for the exact reason that you lay out at the end. After all, companies like Coors have invested a lot into LGBT centers and art events while continuing to fund anti-LGBT causes and candidates. I'll be doing my own research to see how many lids I can blow off the next time Pride rolls around.

my adage is "Big Corporations don't "clean up their act", they just launder their image.

During the past several years I have come to question the integrity of NPR on many issues. However the Monsanto ads have brought me to the point of questioning their integrity on just about everything. I don't think we want to accept the idea that this almost "sacred" institution may have sold out, but that is so obviously what has occurred. Just take a look at the list of "sponsors" - and make no mistake - these are not merely mentions of "support" but well-crafted, targeted ads designed to restore credibility to very dubiously well-intended (at best!) corporations. I find this sort of insidious programming - and I mean that both as programming minds as well as on-air programming - totally unethical and even dangerous to the obviously too trusting listening audience. Heck - they have even resorted to creating ads affirming their own integrity and trustworthiness! On second thought, make that "integrity" and "trustworthiness." And FYI NPR - we ALL have to make tough decisions when we need money to survive.... Here is an on line article that provides some actual facts countering the false propaganda of the Monsanto "sponsorships": (And if NPR isn't "directly affiliated with American Public Media," the producers of Marketplace, and so feels comfortable broadcasting their lies, then they need to suffer the consequences of their own false integrity in not standing up for their principles. Actions speak louder than (false) programming, ultimately....)

I finally quit listening to our excellent jazz station, KUVO, because I couldn't stomach the hourly "White House press briefings" that NPR sold as its"hourly news product". I think of them as "National Propaganda Radio". They've been "turned" to the Right, just as PBS has.

<p>Thanks for the thoughtful article on cause marketing and me. Your points are well taken. I began linking companies and causes and causes with companies in 1982, first helping the Rockport Shoe Company to authentically promote walking for health and fitness to raise awareness of the nation's first walking shoes. From the very beginning of my quest to educate and lead companies to use social issues to build bridges to stakeholders, my philosophy then and today is about genuine ties to a social issue and a deep/long term commitment. Rockport invested considerable $ to modernize walking and make it fun, scientific (it could help your heart health) and a bit more hip for all ages to adopt. I helped them to conduct series of scientific investigations into this activity, renamed it Fitness Walking, and encouraged Rockport to invest in R &amp; D to develop shoes --athletic and everyday types made to encourage walking. This may seem obvious, but it wasn't at the time. Rockport lead with walking as their issue, created a fitness test that when unveiled on Good Morning America, generated 60,000 requests for it in pre internet days no less! These actions birthed the walking movement in the US, and yes too it helped Rockport grow from an unknown $20 million company to over $125 million in five years. It was a win for society and a win for Rockport. This type of relationship is what renowned Harvard Business School Professor Michael Porter calls &quot;shared value. where companies find the intersection of a social issue that is deeply relevant to its business, then makes a strategic investment for the long term. I do the work that I do with great pride. Yes I am called by some, the &quot;mother of cause marketing,&quot; and no matter what the label, since I started this type of work in 1982, I have committed myself and the work I do with companies to be highly strategic, (and yes it does take a lot of work to do it right and &quot;institutional will&quot; of people and $ and senior leadership). When I led Cone, we helped the American Heart Association refocus their extensive efforts in four campaigns: Go Red for Women attacking the #1 cause of death in women; the Alliance for a Healthier Generation fighting youth obesity; the Power to End Stroke fighting stroke for African Americans and START! promoting walking to adults. These campaigns have a variety of partners and yes some of not perfect, like the Rite Aid example you mention. The AHA does have vetting procedures that review partners before signing on. These campaigns have raised awareness, the engagement of new more healthy behaviors and have raised more than $250 million for heart disease research. Creating movements, like preventing heart disease, obesity, breast cancer, walking takes many -- for profits and nonprofits-- coming together to create awareness, education, raise funds for research and services and ultimately change behaviors. The road to creating these movements winds considerably. There is much learning along the way. Some missteps and some crashes. What is so encouraging is that companies today realize they do have a social contract to fulfill, with employees, consumers and communities, here as well as abroad. How they deliver on that contract varies broadly. Some companies do it superbly, with nary a problem along the way. Others are laggards and do it slowly, externally sometimes before addressing issues internally. And yes some do it only for window dressing. I led Cone for 29 years and as a team we help lead companies and nonprofits from Rockport to Avon, ConAgra, PNC, Western Union, among others to support social issues from health to early childhood education, to the environment among others. They have raised more than $1.2 billion for various causes. I have also helped countless colleagues teach their managements that this is a required strategy and the ways to do it well so both sides win. I left Cone to join one of the world's leading strategy and communications firms -- Edelman -- because of their deep and genuine commitment to moving social issues engagement forward through thought leadership, programs, products and services. Their global reach through 52 offices, 3200+ and 1000+ clients, will help to spread the strategy of well thought out, authentic engagement with causes to benefit society, employees, companies, ngo's and consumers. Again thanks for your thoughtful commentary. We must all work to raise the bar on great strategy and execution and shine a light on actions that are poorly done.</p>

What the Cluck? Tell KFC and Susan G. Komen for the Cure to stop pinkwashing! With their "Buckets for the Cure" campaign, KFC and Susan G. Komen for the Cure are telling us to buy buckets of unhealthy food to cure a disease that kills women. When a company purports to care about breast cancer by promoting a pink ribboned product, but manufactures products that are linked to the disease, we call that pinkwashing. Make no mistake--every pink bucket purchase will do more to benefit KFC's bottom line than it will to cure breast cancer. Join us in telling KFC and Susan G. Komen for the Cure to rethink this pinkwashing partnership. Breast Cancer Action

I have found this site extremely useful and the topics have been profound. I agree with the most of the blogs in that large corporate's tend to use their power to manipulate and coherse their customer base into buying goods or services. What will also be interesting is to see how BP will react with its damage limitation campaign to the massive chaos it has caused to the beautiful American shores, wildlife and ocean life.