Cause marketing and the Super Bowl: Is it ethical? - Generocity Philly


Feb. 7, 2018 11:00 am

Cause marketing and the Super Bowl: Is it ethical?

Columnist Lansie Sylvia has some thoughts on corporations' attempts to brand themselves as the good guys: "It may be advertising for a just cause, but that doesn’t mean the cause is just."

How to Give” is a monthly column by local philanthropy wizard Lansie Sylvia. In it, Lansie answers readers’ questions about millennials, philanthropy and engaging the next generation of givers. To ask her a question, tweet @FancyLansie.


My brother and I got into an argument about the Budweiser commercial during the Super Bowl (go Birds!) He thought the ad was great and demonstrated Budweiser’s commitment to doing good in the world. I thought the ad undermined the company’s supposed “charity” because if they made a commercial about it, then it’s obviously just a cheap play for good PR. Who’s right?

Just so everyone is clear, here’s the commercial we’re talking about:

This year, NBC charged advertisers just over $5 million for each 30-second spot, which was beamed into the eyeballs of an estimated 103.4 million viewers. Budweiser wasn’t the only entity sidling up to social causes in an attempt to bolster their own brand equity. For example:

  • Kraft encouraged us to “family greatly,” showing pictures of … families … and possibly including a same-sex couple, thus capitalizing on good vibes without actually standing up for equality or diversity in any way.
  • T-Mobile used a lullaby cover of Nirvana’sAll Apologies” (ahem!) to promote egalitarianism and tolerance, which is great, but I have no idea what it has to do with T-Mobile.
  • Red Lobster introduced its Seafood with Standards program, which promises that all of the chain’s seafood served will be “100 percent traceable, sustainable, and responsible.” (I’m actually really excited about this.)
  • Hyundai used an incredibly tortured narrative device of a “hope detector” to showcase cancer survivors who just wanna make sure we know that buying a Hyundai supports the automaker’s charitable donations for pediatric cancer. I think I hate this one the most. What happens if we don’t buy the cars? Will the kids die? (I definitely hate this one the most.)
  • Plus more from Toyota (three times!), Verizon, Coke and Stella Artois.

This is called cause marketing, or cause-related marketing, which is a tactic that companies use to sell their goods and services by promoting all of the ways in which your purchase actually benefits a nonprofit partner or supports a social cause in some way.

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One of the first big examples of this was the Yoplait pink yogurt tops. Remember those? You bought one and some percentage of that purchase supported breast cancer research. The TOMS shoes “buy one, give one” model is a more contemporary example of this strategy.

So, returning to the Budweiser commercial, your question seems to boil down to this: Does the commercial prove that Budweiser is a good company capable of charitable acts, or a bad company that uses “giving back” as a means to just sell more beer? Well, the answer is … probably both.

According to Budweiser, its Cartersville, Ga. brewery has provided more than 79 million cans of water for relief efforts since 1988, including three million cans in 2017 for disaster relief in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and California. So that’s a good thing! However, one wonders what further impact Budweiser could have had on the affected regions it pumped water into had it not spent $5 million humble-bragging about its impact.

One wonders what further impact Budweiser could have had on the affected regions it pumped water into had it not spent $5 million humble-bragging about its impact.

And here’s the kicker — in 2016, Budweiser’s parent company, Anheuser-Busch InBev, donated millions of dollars to Republican campaigns and PACS. That’s the same party in power that has been widely criticized for its lackluster natural disaster relief efforts.

I think you see where I’m going with this.

Does the commercial look good? Sure. Does that mean Budweiser is doing good? Not necessarily. Don’t get it twisted — this is advertising. It may be advertising for a just cause, but that doesn’t mean the cause is just.

Charitable contributions, even sizable ones, don’t offset the larger negative impacts companies can have on the environment, the labor market and the individual people they employ. To judge a company’s goodness, you have to look at the entire sum of its parts.

To put it simply, you’re both right … but you’re a little bit more right than your brother.

And finally, a word on Dodge, which used audio from a speech by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to sell cars. Yes, I know Dr. King’s estate licensed the use of the audio. But just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should.

Oh, and go Birds!


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