Friday, 8 November 2013

Marketing at its brightest – the charity edition

It's charidee!
I have a brand new idea for a really ace marketing campaign. How about: ‘buy our product – or the poor black child in Africa gets it’?

You like it? No?

Well it’s already happening, in essence, because it’s the subliminal message that could be taken from a number of advertising campaigns by a number of companies, which attempt to persuade you to buy their products by promising to make a small donation to charity for every unit sold.

At present in the UK, we have Kelloggs promoting itself by promising that if you promote the company, they’ll ensure that a child somewhere in the UK will get a breakfast.

@KelloggsUK has been tweeting: “RT to #GiveAChildABreakfast. Breakfast clubs are fun and help kids get their breakfast so they can focus in class”.

Now to be fair, I tweeted back at them, rather snidely suggesting that that breakfast would be sugar-laden and salt-packed breakfast cereals. They responded, saying that they give money to school breakfast clubs, with no conditions on how it is spent.

However, the core issue remains: it’s an act of marketing disguised as charity.

Only this lunchtime in a corner shop, I noticed boxes of Whiskas cat food proclaiming that if you buy those, it’ll help to “protect the tiger”.

Pampers Nappies seem to regularly advertise by saying that if you buy their nappies they’ll donate something or other – for instance, one tetanus jab to UNICEF for each packet front returned to them.

And right now, Innocent Drinks is selling bottles of their smoothies with miniature hats on top that have been knitted and sent in by members of the public, and from the sales of which the company will donate to Age UK to keep old people from freezing to death this winter.

You can see below the Twitter conversation I had with them about this yesterday.

This is a company, remember, that is 90% owned by Coca-Cola, which itself hardly has a sparkling record, facing longstanding criticisms on a range of issues from its environmental record to the abduction and murder of trade unionists at its bottling plants in Guatemala and Colombia.

So what happens if you don’t buy the product that promises to make a donation?

Remember the social media meme: ‘If God sees you masturbating, a kitten will die’? That’s a joke about blackmail.

These are rather less jokey.

What it certainly does is to philosophically change the nature of charity.

If charitable giving is about increasing sales/profits or being able to get a tax break, it alters the essential nature of the act.

If you doubt me on the tax-break point, ask yourself how you'd feel if you discovered that someone had claimed tax back on the cost of a poppy for this season of remembrance.

And if that is not the exploitation of those in need for the sake of profit, then what is it?

If nothing else, there’s a corporate cynicism here that is not in keeping with what one would hope charity would mean.

It’s even got a name – ‘cause marketing’, and in the US at least, there’s a web page from the New York State Office of the Attorney General about it, advising both companies and customers on the issue.

According to WikipediaCause-related marketing is a powerful marketing tool that business and nonprofit organizations are increasingly leveraging. According to the Cone Millennial Cause Study in 2006, 89% of Americans (aged 13 to 25) would switch from one brand to another brand of a comparable product (and price) if the latter brand was associated with good cause ... Earlier studies by Cone indicate an upward trend in the number of Americans who associate their own buying habits with cause marketing as well as an expectation that those companies to be good corporate citizens.

So it works to increase sales.

It works in a different way too.

The American Heart Foundation gives out a stamp of approval via its food certification programme, which permits the use of its ‘heart check’ logo on products that meet its low-fat, low-cholesterol standards, such as Cheerios, the breakfast cereal.

We have something similar in the UK, where the British Heart Foundation has links with Flora, a brand that is owned by Unilever, which is also involved in the UK government’s public health policy-making process.

Innocent Drinks get antsy
But let’s hop back to those Cheerios for a moment. Ingredients – “Whole Cereal Grains (77.8%) (Whole Grain Oats, Whole Grain Wheat, Whole Grain Barley, Whole Grain Rice, Whole Grain Maize), Sugar, Partially Inverted Brown Sugar Syrup, Wheat Starch, Salt, Tripotassium Phosphate, Colours: Carotene, Annatto And Caramel, Antioxidant: Tocopherols, Vitamins And Minerals: Vitamin C, Niacin, Pantothenic Acid, Vitamin B6, Riboflavin (B2), Thiamin (B1), Folic Acid (Folacin), Vitamin B12, Calcium Carbonate And Iron, To produce 100g Of This Product 77.8g Of Whole Grain Was Included In This Recipe”.

Yay! Low fat! Yay! Actually, 3.2g of fat per 45g serving, of which 1.5g saturates. However, the same serving also includes 28.7g of carbohydrate, 12.4g of which sugars.

Now take a look at Flora Original Spread (they’ve stopped calling it margarine after that became box office poison), which is part of a brand that is sometimes marketed as linked to the British Heart Foundation.

Ingredients: “Vegetable Oils (Seed Oils 85%), Water, Salt (1.4%), Buttermilk, Emulsifier: Mono- and Diglycerides of Fatty Acids, Preservative: Potassium Sorbate, Citric Acid, Vitamin E, Vitamin B6, Flavouring, Colour: Beta-Carotene, Folic Acid, Vitamins A, D and B12.”

Now, what do you think the ingredients list looks like on a pack of unsalted butter?

You won’t easily find any such list – because there’s only one ingredient in unsalted butter, and that’s cream.

Then ask yourself why butter doesn’t need added “flavouring” and why Flora Original ‘Spread’ does. And why it needs colour added too. Could it be because you wouldn’t want to spread it on anything if these things were not added? And if it would taste dire of or nothing, and if it looked awful without added colour, why would anyone think it a ‘natural’ and healthy food to consume and why would anyone buy and consume – it?

Of course, conventional advice is that fat is bad for you – so buy those foods that call themselves low-fat, even if they’re stuffed with sugars to compensate for the lack of taste and ‘mouth feel’ that occurs when fat is stripped out.

This orthodoxy is, however, being challenged.

Dr Aseem Malhotra, an interventional cardiology specialist registrar at Croydon University Hospital, London, recently made the headlines after penning a shocking (to many) article in the British Medical Journal, which said, briefly, that saturated fat is not the problem – and may actually be good for your health. And that the real problems are caused by sugars.
To emphasise: that’s a non-technical summary, so please do read the original article, which you can access here.
Dr Malhotra is not the first to point this out, but he has enough of a profile to ensure that the story was picked up widely.
The British Heart Foundation continues to reject such conclusions, but its relationship with Flora/Unilever means that, at best, it has a conflict of interest. The same is the case in the States with the American Heart Foundation.

And this is at a time when there is an increasingly loud voice saying that sugars – many of them hidden – are the major dietary health problem in the West, and that this is what needs to be tackled.

As has been said by others, the attitude of Big Food to this is reminiscent of the behavior of tobacco companies – and its difficult to see cause marketing as not being an entirely deliberate and calculated tactic in creating an image of corporate responsibility and moral behavior that enables to multinational companies to continue behaving just as they please, while customers, trying to do the right thing, make choices based on that cynical marketing.

As Jim Royle might so eloquently put it:  ‘Charity my arse’ .

• You can follow @DrAseemMalhotra on Twitter for more information on diet.

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