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Thou Shalt Not... Signal Thy Virtue
"He's a rescue..."
As far as I’m aware, virtue signaling is new, but people were ‘putting on airs’ as soon as we invented the first neighbor. Today, we signal virtue on social media by swapping out our profile pictures or using trendy hashtags in our Instagram posts.
To do this in the past, one would have to speak out loud, in person, using words such as, “I rescued a dog” or “I donated my Christmas bonus to Sarah McLachlan.” To hear it is to bathe in another’s hubris – eww. I despise these situations, as you likely do, because we all smell the ego behind these statements.
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The person espousing their virtue wants to look better than everyone in earshot. And they want us to award them communal brownie points for some small sacrifice they made in the name of sea turtles. And in that moment, you can’t possibly critique their cause of choice, ridiculous as it may be, without suffering this retort: “oh yeah, what have you done for sea turtles lately?!” To which you must reply, “I’ve eaten two in the past week. They’re a delicacy in my culture, Karen!”
Thanks to the Internet, virtue signaling travels much farther than the sound of your voice. Ten seconds fail to tick by before someone tweets a rallying cry for their cause du jour. A raucous virtual applause follows: likes, hearts, re-shares, and comments as irreproachable as the author’s proclamation. What actual social change takes place? A retargeting campaign grows its wings.
And the audience so reached cares for this cause about as long as it takes Twitter to surface their next source of outrage. John Wooden famously stated: “the true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.” If you believe this as I do, then you recognize that people who signal their virtue do so because they’re being watched, they want an audience. And if we only do the right thing because people are watching, then our choices have little to do with our beliefs and everything to do with our vanity.
As early as the 1970s, companies began to practice what we know today as cause marketing. You may have never heard the term; I hadn’t until I did research for this chapter. But cause marketing today is not only commonplace, it’s a near prerequisite for entering the coveted 18-35+ segment.
A cause marketing campaign aligns philanthropic giving with what we truly care about most: ourselves. When you buy the thing you were going to buy anyway, the brand donates 10¢ to elephants, breast cancer, and elephants with breast cancer. What’s particularly vile about this practice is that on its surface, it appears to create a win-win-win scenario: the brand makes the sale, the customer feels good about themselves, and the organization receives a donation. What’s not to love?
In 2009, Angela Eikenberry published a rebuke1 to cause marketing campaigns. In her article, she highlights some paramount arguments that show cause marketing doing more harm than good. I’ll highlight a few of these here.
The first concern is the unholy matrimony between giving and shopping. She argues that philanthropy must involve real and hard work. If it’s not a donation of one’s time and effort, philanthropy requires at least a sacrificial sum of cash. She cites a research paper that showed consumers who purchased cause-marketed products perceived themselves as charitable, and thereby reduced their actual charitable giving.
Cause-marketed products rarely come with a premium price tag – they’re the same ol’ glazed donuts you bought last week but now they’re fighting climate change at the everyday-low price of $6.99 per dozen. Which is to say, the brand donates the proceeds and the customer pays the same price they’ve always paid; the donation is the extra nudge the consumer needs to choose one brand over another. In the end, the consumer makes no sacrifice and the corporation trades a tax write-off in for a double-whammy public relations boost slash demand surge.
Meanwhile, charities excluded from the cause marketing game suffer.
The second major problem cause marketing campaigns create is the pressure for brands to partner with highly-visible organizations. There’s a good chance we sway the consumer to purchase our cause-marketed product if the buyer both recognizes the organization we’re supporting and the problem they purport to solve.
To succeed, the brand flexes marketing muscles to vault the message of one cause high above the rest, to the chagrin of causes more worthy of such attention.
As Eikenberry cites in her article, the heyday of Pink Ribbon campaigns marched breast cancer to the forefront of concerns for many women (and men). Given its prominence, you’d figure breast cancer was the world’s number one lady-killer. And yet, heart disease earns that coveted spot by claiming nearly 5x as many female lives per year – where’s the heart disease ribbon at?
To the brand, that oversight is irrelevant because they won the brownie points and spurred their sales; they had their cake and ate it, too.
Cause Marketing: Reloaded
Today, cause campaigns come and go without much fanfare as a new form of cause marketing has them royally eclipsed.
Thanks to millennials (people my age-ish), cause campaigns no longer keep a company in the good graces of the ever-growing mobs of social-justice warriors (SJWs) and right-wing nut-jobs (RWNJs). Now I’m no sociologist, so I can’t speak with any evidence beyond my own observation, but when the Internet began to replace our neighborhoods, we found ourselves living in the 1950s.
We began to, and continue to put up fronts; many of us go the extra mile to paint ourselves in the best light possible. I learned recently that my good buddy photoshops his Facebook photos before he publishes them, and I thought this guy’s ego was in-check.
And just like in the 1950s, according to their representation in media (I ain’t no historian), their over-manicured outward-presenting life led to a powerful and pernicious gossip culture. Men and women privately cut each other down for driving the wrong car, burning the pot roast, wearing last season’s dress, going to the wrong Church, or associating with the those people. Does this sound at all familiar?
Social media was meant for people, but now people are brands, and remember, corporations are people, people. So we’re all mixed together in this pit of undesirables, duking it out for likes, retweets, and teardowns… And putting our best foot forward, the one that says “our brand stands with X, Y, and Z.”
Introducing Stakeholder Capitalism
This abomination of an idea is the wondrous conclusion to generations of consumers raised on cause marketing. We now have customers who believe that shopping not only can be, but must be a moral and philanthropic act.
For optimal results, toss that belief into a mortar and mash it guacamole-style with corporate personhood and the pristine image-crafting demands of our 1950s social media Matrix. Delish. You end up with brands who believe serving their customer is secondary to placating social media mobs and customers who proclaim their desire to buy exclusively from socially-conscious brands.
On the RWNJ-side, they want to see brands who put America and ‘freedom’ first; same delusional coin, flip-side. Are you seeing the problem?
As Eikenberry states, consumerism and philanthropy make poor bedfellows. Cause marketing and stakeholder capitalism attempt to take the pressure off citizens from participating in actual charity and civics. Why do anything about the hole in the Ozone layer when you’re buying toilet paper made from recycled diapers? This dynamic forces companies to choose sides, pretend to be woke (or obscenely patriotic), and divert resources to problem areas in which they have limited or no expertise.
Sorry-not-sorry, but people form organizations to solve singular problems. Some muster the talent that puts tiny super-computers into every pocket, and others possess the know-how to keep drugs out of the hands of children.
Apple won’t cure AIDS any sooner than Doctors Without Borders brings the headphone jack back to the iPhone. It’s our responsibility to remind consumers that shopping does not, and cannot absolve their guilt.
But that’s precisely what cause marketing and stakeholder capitalism aim to do: these ideas prey on our desire to present the perfect manicured façade, to live altruistically in the eyes of our 300-million neighbors, to buy and support woke patriots.
How Cause Marketing Impacts Your Business
When you start playing this game on any larger-than-small scale, you invite scrutiny. It’s gossip-city: expect your detractors to fire broadsides at the ‘moral character’ of your business.
They may ambush your employees, harass your executives, and dig through your entire online history looking for ‘problematic’ behavior for which there is no statute of limitations.
As far-reaching as a temporary PR-boost and sales surge may be, quadropoly strong are the consequences of the Internet elite flogging your brand in public with misinformation and gossip; it’s the kind of news that travels by bullet train.
Anyone who proclaims to be a paragon of character on the Internet paints a Goliath-sized target on their back, and a million Davids are coming.
What To Do Instead
Run your business and market yourself in a manner convivial with your beliefs, full-stop. And as you do, avoid repurposing your good practices as temporary marketing gimmicks.
As long as you do things the way you believe they ought to be done, you can walk through life with moral impunity – you can sleep at night. That doesn’t mean you’re always doing the right thing, which tends to change as we learn more about the world and our impact upon it.
So you must make room for self-improvement and reevaluation, admit to poor choices when you make them, remedy wrongs when you are at fault, and in general, grow as a person as your company grows.
Avoid aligning with causes simply because they look like easy wins; these ‘easy wins’ will invite the inevitable socially-charged broadsides of a tireless Internet mob frothing over their next meal: you.
“The Hidden Costs of Cause Marketing (SSIR).” Ssir.org, 2021. https://ssir.org/articles/entry/the_hidden_costs_of_cause_marketing.