I like Nick Kristof a lot, but I think he’s off base in his column today about cause marketing. He’s right on his core argument that many cause marketers fall short because they make the problems seem too large and impersonal:
“A number of studies have found that we are much more willing to donate to one needy person than to several.”
But this point happens to be a retread of one of the most-repeated (and sort of tired) tropes about cause marketing. I bet Kristof’s even written about it before (I’ll dig into that when I have time), so he’s not really breaking much ground here, especially when he mixes in out of place hints at the bystander effect. (see last week’s On the Media for a good partial debunking of the urban legend that spawned that effect)
Beyond that, his argument is muddled and in my view off base on many fronts. Here’s a particularly egregious example:
“Humanitarians are abjectly ineffective at selling their causes. Any brand of toothpaste is peddled with far more sophistication than the life-saving work of aid groups. Do-gooders also have a penchant for exaggeration, so that the public often has more trust in the effectiveness of toothpaste than of humanitarian aid.”
How many non “do-gooders”, especially toothpaste marketers have a penchant for exaggeration? This isn’t unique to the do-good variety. People trust the effectiveness of toothpaste more than aid because they can touch, feel, taste and smell toothpaste, you can’t do that with aid. Aid is far away, toothpaste is on the shelf at CVS. I don’t think it has anything to do with exaggeration.
Kristof’s right that there are some bad cause marketing efforts going on out there, but I don’t think it’s because they lack the sophistication of Madison avenue, it’s because they lack the $ of Madison avenue. There are a lot of ineffective ads for toothpaste on television too. Also isn’t there an entire industry dedicated to criticizing over spending on fundraising/marketing and other “non-programmatic” pursuits? How are causes supposed to come anywhere near matching the resources put into a simple “sophisticated” toothpaste ad campaign?
It was a bad way to make an otherwise well intentioned point.