All things considered, I think the rise of branded philanthropy has been one of the best things to happen in marketing in the past 10-15 years. Between corporate giving back programs and the internet, kids are more aware of (and are doing more for) charitable causes than they used to, overpaid celebrities are under more pressure to give money away, and it's becoming an integral part of companies' business plans: These days, almost every big RFP I come across has a 'community involvement' component; ten years ago, almost none of them did.
If you live in Canada, you've probably seen some tv ads for this initiative in the past couple of weeks, though apparently this is the third or fourth year they've done it. Essentially the goal is to 'build' 5000 bikes which Cadbury will then send to kids in Ghana, for whom a bicycle is an important tool in all kinds of ways.
All very laudable, except that you can't help to 'build' a bicycle without giving Cadbury all kinds of your personal information and 'engaging' with Cadbury products online.
More difficult for me to swallow was the fact that if each 'specially designed' bicycle costs $250, the total spend for Cadbury is only $1.25 million. This is less than they typically spend on advertising a single brand of chocolate bar in Canada in a single year. Worldwide, Kraft/Cadbury revenue is about $48 billion - which makes $1.25 million a drop in the proverbial bucket. And Jodi Lastman over at Hypenotic offers some interesting insights into the negative effects of turning a complex sociological issue into a simplified 'contest'.
I became even more cynical about the whole thing when I read this piece in Strategy Magazine, in which Cadbury cheerfully announces that the program has driven sales increases of 42%. Even if that is typical agency hyperbole, I do know that if the program hadn't driven double-digit sales increases in its first year or two, they wouldn't have continued it.
They're not the only ones
Tonight, the Cadbury spot was followed by a 30-second edit of this commercial for Coca-Cola's support of a Participaction program to help disadvantaged teens become 'more active':
At the end of the spot, there's a super announcing that Coca-Cola is giving $10 million - but it's over 10 years. In other words, a company which makes $10.5 billion annually is trying to make you think that its $1 million/year spend is a big deal. But given the production value of the video, and the frequency with which I've seen the commercial, I'm positive they're spending more money promoting this initiative than they're spending on the kids. Heck, Wikipedia says Coca-Cola spends upwards of $3 million lobbying the US government every year (no doubt to convince Congress that 17 teaspoons of sugar per can isn't a problem).
Look, I know that neither of these programs are the only branded philanthropy efforts these companies are undertaking. I'm not suggesting that companies should be giving away all of their profits, and I think it's okay when companies use their philanthropic efforts to generate some positive media attention for themselves. That's how the system works, and a company which doesn't continue to grow revenue soon can't do any good for anyone.
So what am I saying? Well, I think I'm encouraging you to think twice, and maybe do some research, when a company tells you to buy their products first because they're committed to 'giving back'. And I think I'm also hoping that if enough of us make it clear that we're noticing the details, it'll encourage companies to do just a little bit more, next time.