Is corporate America driving your charitable donations?

Feb 4, 2018

Not all pink ribbons are created equal, according to the "Take Care" guest we're speaking to today.

Dr. Mara Einstein is a researcher, author and professor at Queens College, CUNY, who dissects the effects of marketing on society and on ourselves. Her latest book is “Black Ops Advertising: Native Ads, Content Marketing and the Covert World of the Digital Sell.”

Remember Livestrong bracelets? What about Project RED? Years of yellow rubber bracelets and t-shirts worn by Bono seem like they may be behind us, but are they? Einstein thinks these campaigns miss the mark, big time.

Credit Drew Olanoff / Flickr

Take Breast Cancer Awareness Month: Almost everything in every store in the month of October is wrapped in pink, from water bottles and tennis racquets to bags of lettuce. It’s an easy choice, you already need lettuce, so why not support breast cancer research while you’re at it.

“I thought that too when I saw this, but when I began to dig into it a whole lot more, when I started researching my book, I began to find out that that actually wasn’t a particularly good way to raise money for various charities,” Einstein says.

(Most of the topics we’ll go over today are covered in Einstein’s book “Compassion, Inc.: How Corporate America Blurs the Lines Between What We Buy, Who We Are and Those We Help.” You can dig pretty deep into corporate-social responsibility and cause-related marketing if you pick it up at your local library.)

"What happens is all the money then goes to these handful of charities that have become very good marketers themselves and a lot of other institutions that really need the money end up not getting the kind of donations that they need."

If a certain amount of money, let’s say from every water bottle bought, goes to charity -- that’s great! The problem is that most of the time, there’s a cap to the total donation made. In our example, five percent of the proceeds from each water bottle purchased up to $250,000. Awesome. Until, of course, you reach that limit.

“A problem with that is they don’t tell you when that $250,000 donation has been reached,” Einstein says. “So people continue to buy the product even while they may not be contributing to donating to the charity.”

This type of marketing is called cause-related marketing. It sells product, raises money for a charity and makes the company partnering with the charity look good.

“What happens is all the money then goes to these handful of charities that have become very good marketers themselves and a lot of other institutions that really need the money end up not getting the kind of donations that they need,” Einstein says.

"That's the thinking that the marketers want to use."

Justification by donation

Project (RED) was founded by Bono and Bobby Shriver in 2006 to help in the fight against AIDS. When you visit their website, a pop up tells you that up to 50 percent of proceeds from (RED)-branded products will go to the Global Fund.

“When it came to one of the really high end products that was connected with that particular campaign was Bugaboo Strollers. The stroller’s like a $900 baby stroller and one percent of the sale of that actually goes to Product RED,” Einstein says.

This slippery slope -- justifying a high-end purchase because you know you’re doing some ‘good’ -- is a large part of cause-related marketing.

“That’s the thinking that the marketers want to use,” Einstein says.

Why didn't we trademark the ribbon?

Turns out, not all pink ribbons are tied to a charity. It was never trademark. If you pay close attention, you’ll notice slight variations between them.

“It became so successful that everybody started using it,” Einstein says.

You may be supporting the Susan G. Komen organization, or another organization, or you may just be spending money on a pink ribbon magnet.

To avoid this intertwining of charity and consumerism, Einstein says that you should just donate money directly to the charity of your choice.

“The best thing for someone to do, actually, is they can make a monthly donation and just put it on your credit card.”

Another option: Fight in the political process. Some years ago (around Ronald Reagan's time), corporate taxes were slashed. Einstein says this resulted in corporations having to pick up where the government left off when it comes to philanthropy.

"The problem is ... corporations aren't putting the same kind of money into philanthropy that was being done by the government," she says.