Several times a month I have the good fortune of being interviewed for an article seeking insights into some aspect of corporate efforts to do well by doing good.
Whatever the precise topic at hand – a case study, reaction to a new piece of market research data, a primer on the fundamentals – I know that nine times out of ten I will get “the question.”
“What,” they’ll ask, “is the worst example of cause marketing you’ve come across?”
I really dread this part of the conversation. Don’t get me wrong: I understand this approach – I worked as a reporter back in the day and know how common it is to approach any topic with a fair degree of cynicism. I even appreciate the contribution that sharing bad examples can make in exposing wrong-headed undertakings and providing a stark contrast to strong programs.
The problem is – I don’t have a ready supply of flat out lousy, ill-conceived programs to share. There are some great efforts in the marketplace and a ton of mediocre ones. But awful, painful, big efforts that make it onto my radar screen are rare. A lot of poor programs were started with good intentions and lose their way to become ineffective, “why bother?” efforts. But truly evil efforts designed to be inauthentic and deceptive just aren’t that common.
And I hate tarring companies and causes with the brush of malfeasance for getting behind weak initiatives that lost their way. I know it is very likely that any nuances that I describe to the reporter are unlikely to make it into the article.
Which is why my face lit up the other day when I opened an alternative weekly newspaper and found a full-page ad for an environmental program sponsored by a cigarette company.
“Let’s Leave Every Place Better Than We Found It,” said the “Seeding Change” ad headline placed by American Spirit in the LA Weekly I picked up on a trip to southern California.
“Cigarettes are the most commonly littered item on Earth. This Earth Day, we’re uniting people across the country to make a difference. Help us keep our planet beautiful by keeping cigarette butts off the ground today, and everyday,” continued the body copy.
“Request cigarette butt pouches and learn what else you can do to reduce cigarette litter at AmericanSpirit.com, “ it went on.
And, oh yes, the other elements of the ad were ones you would think would stop readers dead in their tracks:
- A stark, federally required, black type on white background Surgeon General’s warning about the dangers of smoking.
- An asterisked footnote saying that visits to the American Spirit website are restricted to age 21+ smokers
So why do I derive a bit of glee from this initiative?
It’s not that I disagree with the premise – cigarette butts are a polluting scourge to the highways and byways of our land. They are disgusting and found all over the place in huge quantities.
But the approach – asking consumers of this deadly product to pitch in and clean up the mess is wrong in so many ways.
- Cigarette marketers should not work in this space. Period. When you sell an addictive, cancer-causing product that is also a huge generator of pollution, public, consumer-facing marketing efforts to position yourself as a good guy are doomed with the general public and targets for attack from activists who question the authenticity of such efforts.
- American Spirit is opening itself up to a huge liability when it raises the question of who should be cleaning up those billions of discarded butts. A good case could be made that more taxes should be added on to the cost of the product with those funds earmarked to butt collection.
- I doubt that if the effort is sincere – that American Spirit wants huge numbers of smokers to send away for butt pouches and learn how to reduce litter by visiting its website – this advertising campaign will be effective.
I have not seen any research on this, but my gut tells me that the American Spirit buyer will not be responsive to a campaign telling smokers to clean up their act (and offering, by the way, no psychological reward for this behavior change.)
So thank you – sort of – to American Spirit for providing me with an Earth Day example of a terrible corporate cause campaign.
Thank you in advance, readers, for doing me a favor. Please share with me your favorite examples of bad corporate backed cause efforts so I’ll have more fodder to share the next time a reporter inevitably asks me “What is the worst piece of cause marketing you’ve come across?”
And if you’d like insights into the components of strong corporate-backed cause efforts, take a look at our 15 year collection of Halo Award-winning campaigns.