The Dark Side of Corporations' Cause-Marketing

It's National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and its signature pink is everywhere: gracing Web sites, coating electronics, and even strapping wristwatches. Yet companies engaging in this cause-oriented marketing are not always as generous as their pink products may make them seem.

A recent Daily Finance article details the hurdles consumers must overcome to ensure that two cents of their pink-packaged Swiffer purchase actually reach the cause the pink box implies:

according to a Procter & Gamble spokeswoman, the company will only make a two-cent donation to the National Breast Cancer Foundation if a consumer uses a coupon from Procter & Gamble's brand saver coupon book, which was distributed in newspapers on Sept. 27. Without the coupon, the limited-edition pink packaging on the Swiffer is simply designed to draw awareness to the cause.

Though concerns about corporate exploitation of breast cancer awareness campaigns may be unsurprising given their profitability--studies cited in Kris Frieswick's "Sick of Pink" indicate cause-related marketing allows companies both to move more products and to do so at an often higher profit margin--the inconsistent use of the pink ribbon speaks to a more troubling problem of accountability.

While the Susan G. Komen Foundation does own a trademarked pink ribbon symbol whose use they oversee (but with some negligence, as Frieswick exposes), stores contain many products with pink coloring and "generic" pink ribbons whose producers are not bound to the same legal checkmarks. Thus packaging emblazoned with a pink ribbon can mean any number of things for a purchase: donations to breast cancer research, donations to breast cancer research until a cap is reached, donations to breast cancer research if a coupon is used or the product is purchased by a certain date, or no donation toward research at all--just the promotion of raised awareness toward the cause.

Consumer confidence may be on the up, but such a deceptive practice cannot brushed aside. Indeed, perhaps defining the pink ribbon and regulating its use should be next battle in the transparency movement, following the recent decision that requires bloggers to disclose received gifts to their readers and the cries that moved Bank of America and JPMorganChase to make overdraft policies clearer. Though companies certainly have the right to employ marketing strategies that bank on consumer enthusiasm for philanthropy, consumers also have a right to know if, where, and how much of their purchase supports the cause its packaging purports.