Thursday, November 5, 2009

Truth and Lies in Business Support of Causes

A guest blog by Jean Lorrah

On October 12, 2009, Daily Finance published an article called "Pink ribbon overkill: Are companies exploiting breast cancer campaigns?" October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and as a survivor myself I am happy to see big business contributing to the kind of research that has kept me alive and healthy for the past eight years. However, this article questions how much of the money from pink ribbon purchases actually goes to cancer research.

The advocacy group, Breast Cancer Action, points out that many labels are vague about how much money, if any, goes to support cancer research. So Daily Finance did some research, and found that Procter & Gamble, for example, puts pink ribbons on its products with the words "early detection saves lives," but no indication whether buying the product actually supports the cause. As it turns out, it doesn't in most cases! Only if the customer uses a P&G coupon (not a store, magazine, or online coupon, mind you) from a book of coupons distributed in newspapers on September 27, does P&G donate a whopping two cents to the National Breast Cancer Foundation!

Another company uses a different technique. Herr's Whole Grain Pretzel Ribbons indicates on its package "that a portion of its sales will be donated to breast cancer awareness and research programs." However, the fine print informs that Herr's caps its donation at $15,000--so if you purchase after the cap has been reached, your purchase is no help at all.

Here's one I found myself: I use Cat's Pride Cat Litter because it's flushable and because my cats like it--I tried changing to a different product, and the cats started using the bathtub! So when Cat's Pride recently disappeared from the shelves I started worrying about what my cats would accept as a replacement. However, a new supply appeared after two weeks out of stock--and the addition to its labeling indicates why they let the old supply sell out.

Cat's Pride has always had a pink cap and the statement "We Support Breast Cancer Research & Care," with no indication of how they support it. That statement now appears on a peel-off label with a little note, "See reverse for important donation information." On the back we find that the company has made a donation, but "Your purchase does not impact our corporate donation, but we appreciate your continued support."

I'm pretty sure that what caused the disclaimer are the new FTC rules that go into effect December 1. I think soon we will see every product making similar claims adding similar disclaimers. Backing up claims will be required, as will be revealing whether people making testimonials were paid, were given free products, or are actual paying customers.

Why are companies likely to continue the pink ribbons even if they must clearly reveal how they support the cause? Because people who want to feel good about contributing to a cause while purchasing things they would purchase anyway are attracted to products bearing the pink ribbon. Research shows "that 79% of consumers would likely be swayed to switch to a brand aligned with a cause." Since "no one owns the [pink ribbon] image or oversees its use," nothing prevents marketers from using it as they please.

So, no marketing segmenting, positioning, or forecasting required. Just slap a pink ribbon on your product, say something vague, like "early detection saves lives," or "hope for a cure," and pick up a potential 79% of the market with no further effort! And after December 1, how many people will actually peel off a disclaimer label and read the back?

As consumers, to be certain you are genuinely supporting any cause by purchasing a particular brand, read the fine print on the package. And also, watch for local businesses to support your cause, and patronize them. For example, where I live local restaurants will have particular days when 10% of their receipts go to a specified cause. When you patronize them on those days, you will know exactly how much of your payment is going to the cause you are there to support.

1 comment:

  1. Considering profit margins must be met, bills must be paid and employee layoffs don't sound too good to the public, I don't mind if just $.02 of my money for a product goes to fund a charity and with a market of millions, that does add up.

    However, the danger is that too many people who might otherwise contribute even as little as $5 when they get a mail request might not do that because they think since they made the purchase, they've done their good deed.

    Also, wording is deceptive. When a product advertises that it will donate a portion of their profits to a charity, okay, doesn't bother me a bit. I might actually consider making the purchase if I don't already buy that brand.

    However when a product advertises "buy our product and support *fill in the blank charity* that is totally misleading. It's an order to buy the product. It's also ordering the consumer to support the charity. While I laud the advertising of the charity, the wording, while suggestive of financial support, does not make that claim. It's a typical advertising ploy to imply a connection when in fact, there is none.

    As to rules, for people who actually read the fine print on the back of the peal off sticker, they might mean something.

    On the other hand, most major companies do run internal charity campaigns for United Way or Muscular Dystraphy or some other well known, non-denominational, politically correct non-profit. And who wouldn't go out and buy Tide next time they need laundry detergent with the idea they're supporting "Loads of Hope," to help disaster victims?

    So I really don't mind that so little of the profit made from my purchase goes to a charity. What I do mind is tricking people into thinking that $.02 of their money for a product is a viable substitute for $5.