Where does public service end and corporate promotion begin?
That's the question being asked as major U.S. advertisers pursue more visible,
and more commercial, cause-marketing campaigns,
a tactic that can backfire
on both the marketers and the non-profit groups clamoring for their support.
When word leaked out about Quaker Oats Co.'s plan to underwrite
a series of public service announcements with the American
some broadcasters said they wouldn't run the TV spots.
The commercials not only featured actor Wilford Brimley, the well-known
spokesman for Quaker, but were tied to the company's
paid media plan for
its oatmeal products. Public service-type messages from major advertisers are becoming commonplace.
For example, McDonald's Corp. produced A 30-minute public service TV special,
a "Stay in School" in association
with the National Basketball Association, NBC,
Turner Network Television and Nickelodeon. Although
it ran in donated network TV time, the special was bracketed by
spots for the not-for-profit Ronald McDonald Children's
Charities, as was
a free video of an anti-drug, special.
Burger King Corp. and Nike dedicated their commercial time on Channel One, an
in-school satellite TV network, to public service messages about staying in school. The companies are identified
in the spots.
Most observers say a confluence of interests marketers searching for effective
non-traditional marketing tools
and non-profit organizations eager for
visibility and funding -- is pushing cause marketing into gray areas ethically.
"The lines are being blurred by for-profit organizations who are trying
to profit from non-profits, wrapping
themselves in the cloak of 'public
service' for corporate benefit," said Don Schultz, professor at Northwestern
University's Medill School of Journalism
Although no one keeps statistics on the dollars invested or the number
of cause-marketing programs, advertisers
agree they're being approached
"There are certainly many more opportunities for us"'
Lauer, VP-corporate affairs for Sara Lee Corp. and an Advertising Council
board member. "The biggest
reason is the cutback in government funding
. ..during the Reagan administration."
organizations are inundating marketing services managers
with opportunities," said Peter Murray, president of
International, a consultancy. "And promotion consulting companies
are jumping at the chance
to hook up a client and a charity." But
as non-profit organizations move away from news releases and PASs, "a
whole new world is opening up and creating dicey areas of ethics,"
Mr. Murray said he conducted an informal survey of 30 marketing services
managers for companies with large cause-marketing
initiatives When asked
to rank eight objectives of their programs, "what came out on top
were 'leverage with the trade,'
and 'driving coupon redemption and efficiency,'
"Marketers are asking for -- and getting -- more
equal billing these
days," he said. 'They're getting more obvious about what they're doing"
Drawing the Line
But when does a cause-marketing program become ethically suspect-and does
it matter to consumers? "It's very hard
to say, across the board, where you draw the line,"
said Phil Schuman, VP-associate creative director at Burson-Marsteller,
New York, who's studied cause-marketing for 10 years. "But a cause-marketing
effort needs to be appropriate and
tasteful -- and viewed as legitimate
-- or run the risk of backfiring. The public will reject any form of disguised
"If there's an overt gesture on the part of a sponsoring organization
to profit in a real,
bottom-line sense, there may be some negative backlash-not
dissimilar to the consumer response to negative political
said Dan Langdon, senior VP at the Ad Council, the arm of the ad industry
that creates and places
free public service campaigns.
For McDonald's TV specials, for instance, "is there self-interest
part of McDonald's? Let's be honest, it does not hurt to be viewed
as a good corporate citizen," Mr. Langdon said.
"If you looked
at Ronald McDonald Children's Charities without the 'McDonald' attached,
sure, it's legitimate public
service advertising. But does the company
accrue benefit from this program? Sure."
''It's not our intention
to advertise McDonald's," said Ken Barun,
VP-executive director of Ronald McDonald Children's Charities. "
not trying to sneak in commercials for McDonald's.
"My job ... is to make sure we fund good projects that help as many
kids as possible achieve their potential.
After that, if what we do also
is a good message about McDonald's, that's great. But that's not our purpose.
Philip Morris Cos. came under fire for funding the National Archives'
celebration of the Bill of Rights
bicentennial. Critics said the campaign
was an attempt to subvert the ban on broadcast cigarette advertising.
"I'm one of those people who believe consumers are smart individuals,
and anyone who thinks consumers are
easily confused is stupid," said
Guy Smith, Philip Morris' VP- corporate affairs. "Consumers know what
is an ad and what is a PSA. If you try to snooker people, they'll find
Also pushing the boundaries of what's ethical is non-profit organizations'
desire for better and more visible programs.
Groups including local United Way organizations have concluded that buying
TV time gives them more control over their message.
Although the Ad Council says donated media topped $1 billion last year,
many cause-marketing consultants say that's mostly
wasted time. The way PSAs get distributed and aired goes against every model of
media planning," Mr. Murray said.
Many corporations also find when they have a cause to push, free media
is not the answer. Nike pledged $5 million of
its $60 million ad budget to a pro-education
campaign via Wieden & Kennedy, Portland, Ore., that's tied to its athletic
shoe lines. The company broke three public service oriented spots and will break a fourth, featuring basketball star Michael
Jordan and director Spike Lee (in the character of Mars Blackmon).
The effort, featuring the blunt tagline "Don't be stupid, stay in
school," does function as a corporate
image campaign, said Liz Dolan,
Nike's director of public relations. But the bottom line, she said, is
just do it because you feel in your heart that it's the correct
thing to do." Nike considered distributing the spots
as PSAs, but "we decided against
it because you could never get enough airplay in the right places to have
impact," she said.
Similarly, Anheuser-Busch last year doubled the budget for its "Know when to say when" campaign from D'Arcy
Masisus Benton &
Bowles, St. Louis, and DDB Needham Worldwide, Chicago, to $30 million compared
with a year earlier. "
We feel we have a role to play in the responsible use of our product,"
said Steve Burrows, VP-consumer awareness and
education. "Our point
of view is that awareness building combined with local educational programs
can serve just as
well" as legislation.
He said A-B has encouraged local radio and TV stations to also run the
spots as PSAs, and several have. The growth in
paid public service efforts may eliminate opportunities for
some organizations, the Ad Council's Mr. Langdon said. "
Broadcasters have a finite amount of time. You may have a perfectly
sound and legitimate group with an important message --
maybe more important
than the paid-for message -- but their access will be limited by the sheer
fact that all this paid
advertising is on the air," he said.
"Intellectually, it's a problem," Mr. Murray said. "There
are worthy organizations that don't have
access to the Nikes and Quakers
of this world that will get their spots bumped off the air." Stu Upson, co-chairman-
ceo of Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising Worldwide,
New York, and former chairman of the Ad Council, disagreed. "
A paid ad's
a paid ad," he said. "A station won't look at a PSA differently
because he's got paid ads on
the same subject."
The boom in cause marketing also may backfire through consumer overload.
"Whether there will be long-term fallout because of overexposure is
a question that people are beginning to ask,
" Mr. Murray said. "There's
a growing concern that all this will lead to consumer apathy to charitable
in general." But he and most observers say they believe consumers can distinguish between
what's ethical and what's not.
"I think it's easy to underestimate the intelligence of the American
consumer," Sara Lee's Mr. Lauer said. 'But
in reality, if it's unethical,
they won't let you get away with it."