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Navigating the Murky Ethics of Cause-Related Marketing


In the wake of widespread public interest in the Black Lives Matter movement sparked by the murder of George Floyd this past summer, companies posted black squares and other messages of support, sometimes in a way that was obvious virtue signaling. Companies using causes to make themselves look good is not new, but its use in advertising strategies has been rising since the late 80s and is only continuing to grow more prevalent. Cause-related marketing seems like a great idea on the outset, as it often benefits real causes that need support. But lurking in the shadows is CRM’s less obvious dark side. While CRM can make a positive difference, it also can mislead consumers, and it is often closely tied to making the company look great for advertising instead of charitable purposes.


If cause-related marketing can be a good thing, but is often inappropriately implemented, how can it be used by public relations professionals in an ethical way?


1. Line up the values of the cause with company practices.


This past summer, many brands were publicly slammed for posting public messages of support for BLM while not practicing antiracism or an inclusive work environment within their organization. It’s not uncommon for brands to do hypocritical CRM campaigns like this. In 2001 Avon sold shades of lipstick in a campaign called “Kiss Goodbye to Breast Cancer,” which aimed to support breast cancer research. But unknown to many, the products sold contained parabens, which are being investigated as a potential carcinogen.


While drawing attention to causes that need support is great, using the causes as a ploy to get customers to support a company with practices that are actually contributing to the problem is unethical. If a company wants to make a difference in helping end institutional racism or beating breast cancer, they should restructure their harmful practices instead of projecting a false image of concern.


2. Be honest about charitable contributions.


Because so many brands employ cause-related marketing as an advertising strategy instead of making a genuine effort to support a cause, they often leave out convenient details to make themselves seem more generous.


In 1999, Yoplait launched a campaign called, “Save Lids to Save Lives.” They claimed that they would donate 50 cents per yogurt lid mailed in to breast cancer research. But undisclosed to their customers, they decided to cap the donation at $100,000, even though customers mailed in enough lids to equal $4.7 million. In order to be ethical when using CRM, businesses need to be honest with their audience about what they are doing to genuinely help the cause.


3. Approach cause-related marketing from the right angle.


Many companies use CRM because they know customers are much more likely to support businesses that are associated with a cause. Companies are hopping on the bandwagon in order to present an image they know the public will want to see. Cause-related marketing is much more ethical and genuinely helpful when the campaign is implemented because the company wants to use its platform to genuinely make a difference.


As we saw this past summer as many brands publicly came out in support of the Black Lives Matter movement in order to project a positive image, it’s likely that cause-related marketing will only continue to grow as customers become more and more concerned with social issues. With this projected rise in CRM campaigns, it is important that public relations professionals know how to use cause-related marketing ethically.


Caroline States is a senior from Anderson double majoring in public relations and visual communication design. States is the account manager with Fifth Street Communications®, a student-run public relations agency at Anderson University.


fsc@anderson.edu | Anderson University (IN)