The other day I came across an essay from a lawyer at a Washington food policy institute who argued that cause marketing was such a powerful inducement that it ought to be highly regulated if not banned outright.
I’ve had this conversation many times. Cause marketing can be compelling. But nobody loses their will to choose when a sponsor commits an act of cause marketing.
Another critic asks, is “cause marketing honest help” to the causes supported?
Maybe not. But does that matter?
Direct corporate donations to charities have been legal in the United States since a New Jersey court ruling in the 1952 case A.P. Smith Manufacturing Company vs. Barlow, which involved a corporate donation to Princeton University.
Truly rigorous business cases for charitable giving have really only emerged in the last decade, although claims were made about the business value of corporate philanthropy in prior years.
Smith Manufacturing Company vs. Barlow, for instance, the court opined that institutions of higher learning were essential to democracy and the free-enterprise system. Companies increasingly realized
this fact and had therefore a role to play to ensure the survival of such institutions as well as to enhance business conditions.
Subsequent thinkers found such reasoning wanting. Or, as Milton Friedman famously put it, "The discussions of the 'social responsibilities of business' are notable for their analytical looseness and lack of rigor.”
In short, for perhaps 50 years after the A.P. Smith ruling there was no really convincing business case to be made for corporate philanthropy. So if businesses weren't giving for mainly altruistic reasons during those first 50 years, why were they giving?
But let’s ask the question in another way: do a company’s motives matter when it comes to cause marketing?
My response is that any insistence that you, me or any company give purely as an act of “generosity” is in no small way cultural.
Under his entry for “tzedaka,” Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, in his book Jewish Literacy, recounts a hypothetical presented to thousands of Jewish and non-Jewish high school students.
It goes like this: Suppose a poor man in desperate need of food and money for his family approaches two men of equal wealth. The first person cries out in shared pain at the man’s situation and gives him $5. The second person does not respond emotionally. But because he feels obliged by his faith’s command to give 10% of his income, he hands the man $100 before rushing off.
The students are then asked, who did the better thing? Rabbi Telushkin reports that between and 70 and 90% of high school students say that the man who gave from the heart did the better thing.
But that sensibility is largely foreign to Jews. Tzedaka literally translates to “justice,” although it’s usually rendered as “charity.” Jews, says Telushkin see tzedaka as “a form of self-taxation, rather than as a voluntary donation.”
Judaism says in effect, give 10%. If the heart catches up, terrific. But whether it does or not, good has been done.
There are two sides in a charitable or cause marketing donation and, if one still benefits, even if the other side is insincere, how is that wrong?
Interestingly, the Christian writer C.S. Lewis comes to a similar conclusion on the subject of charity in his book, Mere Christianity.
Charity has come to mean what used to be called alms, Lewis says. It’s easy to see why. If a man has charity, giving to the poor is one of the most obvious ways to act charitably, just as rhyme is the most obvious thing about poetry, making it easy to confuse the two.
Instead, charity means love. Not the emotion, and not necessarily affection, but a state of will. “The rule for all of us is perfectly simple," says Lewis. "Do not waste your time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did.” The result is a virtuous cycle. You do something out of love, which then can leads to affection. The affection in turn makes it easier to perform other acts of charitable love.
So let's ask the question again: Does it matter whether or not corporate cause marketing is “honest help”?
Not to the needy, who ultimately benefit from it.