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Money Can’t Buy Human Rights: Why I'm Not Fully Sold By Corporations And Their ‘Allyship’

Updated: Mar 12

Seasonal marketing irks me.

There are two occasions where my visceral disdain for festive spirits are at its peak. The first is the day after Halloween where shops where not a single pumpkin is left in sight. Days and weeks worth of post-Christmas sales occur every year, but apparently Halloween is not given the same courtesy.

The second time is when stores start selling Christmas tat not just before Christmas, but at least two months in advance; skewering my eyes out and roasting them like chestnuts is more appealing than looking at Capitalism at the heights of its artificially flavoured ‘good cheer and kindness’. Both occasions invigorate this urge to launch into an unprovoked rant whilst checking spiced-apple detergent prices in aisle six.

If it feels like I have animosity towards Christmas being prioritised over Halloween, it’s because I absolutely do — I feel as if I see right through the cheap displays of holiday spirits. I don’t want corporations to pretend they care about holiday cheer when they may just want to maximise their numbers at any timely event of the year.

Similarly, you could argue that companies that market their work for, or with, marginalised communities are either disingenuous or just a way to bank on any possible aspect of social relevance. Or both. Cause marketing benefits the company, but does it really benefit us and what we want to consciously invest in?

Defining Cause Marketing

Cause marketing is a type of advertising or promotion to support or highlight social causes and issues that may not be specifically related to the brand, but imply to consumers that brands are financially investing in social and humanitarian campaigns. The Cancer Research Institute states that “cause marketing campaigns may range from a single annual donation by an organization, to a percentage of sale price of a company product line, to net proceeds from a limited edition product by an individual engaging their fan base for a good cause” ("Cause-Related Marketing").

According to Sara Flis, additional examples of cause marketing include:

  • 100 percent of sales donated to a cause

  • Buy one give one

  • Donation with purchase

  • Proud supporter (whereby a company associates itself with a socio-political movement or gives a grant/gift to a non-profit)

  • Volunteerism partnership (employees donate time to an activity)

  • Gift-matching

  • Co-branded events (Flis).

I don’t necessarily have issues with brands that, for example, invest in research awareness or fund causes that are marketed to inform audiences and how they are able to help — such as Cancer Research’s Race for Life. I do have an issue when companies utilise the tools of cause marketing to boost their numbers more than the cause itself; when a corporation’s allyship or philanthropy is short-term, transactional, and relies on consumer purchases. In my opinion, corporations need to make improvements by holding themselves responsible for long-term commitments in supporting marginalised communities.

Anti-Hauls: My Epiphany about Marketing and Allyship

A pivotal moment of my ongoing journey to be more conscious of the products I was purchasing was discovering Kimberly Clark’s anti-hauls in 2017. Built on the premise to be the antithesis of online beauty creators flaunting what they purchased at various ranges of budget, Drag Queen Kimberly Clark introduced me to the idea of a video series that critiqued the beauty industry for how they market their products to incentivise purchases — what you are NOT going to buy rather than what you have already bought. They also provided hard reality checks to viewers that companies don’t care if you like pretty packaging because it’s nostalgic for you, they care if pretty and nostalgic packaging incite people to complete their orders.

One of Kimberly Clark’s anti-hauls titled ‘ANTIHAUL #19 — CORPORATE PRIDE (FT. JACLYN HILL!)’ managed to consolidate what I grew up hypothesising into one video. Corporations that advertise philanthropy and allyship towards a specific community or marginalised group are not as sincere as we want to believe. It’s an additional method for us to spend money on consumer items with less guilt attached to the total.

This was my epiphany. My moment of enlightened realisation. There was a way of explaining why I felt instant ‘sus’ seeing products plastered in socio-historic flags for only a month of digital campaigns. The ones that conveniently advertised diversity, inclusion and allyship after a time of tragedy or global trauma. Their use of cause marketing may have initially derived from a place that wanted to show support, but at the end of the day, their allyship comes at a price.

How Brands Benefit From Cause Marketing

From a brand and marketing perspective, it can be understandable why cause marketing works. Cause marketing can manufacture an unspoken agreement between company and consumer that you’re on each other’s side, that you both have similar values and both want to support and invest in allyship or philanthropy but on your own terms. Additionally, cause marketing can boost a brands reputation in the market; it helps brands stand out from their competitors to attract potential customers.

Not only that, but a brand marketing their name and respective products alongside a socially accepted cause can be utilised like a red-tinted flag, distracting the herd of bulls that frequently charge through multiple social media platforms if a brand does something that is the socio-political version of ‘yikes’. Furthermore, brands communicating their support for a certain marginalised group can help individuals that may experience racial, gender, religious or sexual discrimination feel potentially safer with the company of a corporation’s product on their shelf.

When a brand is outspoken about supporting Black, Asian, Indigenous, or LGBTQIA+ communities, those communities can approach certain products under the impression that a brand values their human rights, stand for equality and justice. In their ‘corporate pride’ video, Kimberly Clark states that, “as a queer person when I see a rainbow flag in a space, I feel better. It tells me it’s a safe space; and when I see a rainbow flag on another person, I feel seen and supported and generally less alone” (Clark).

If customers and staff that work under a brand, feel safe and ‘less alone’ in a corporate space, it may ensure that marginalised individuals and their wellbeing are less threatened (but not totally since microaggressions are an ongoing issue in any environment). However, Kimberly Clark follows this by stating, “if you’re going to spend some dough on a rainbow, you should at least think about who that dough is going to. Just because Target has a handful of LGBTQIA+ employees doesn’t mean that those employees profit from sales and merchandising (Clark).

This emphasises the fact that although brands can market how they are diverse and inclusive allies, the money invested to advertise philanthropy and allyship is not necessarily re-invested to support consumers themselves, nor the marginalised staff that work under said corporations. Just because a company spent money on a flag-branded product to sell to you, does not necessarily mean that they are willing to support you if no boost in rank or profit is involved.

So how can brands be ethically supportive whilst being a conscious consumer; in what ways do brands need to evidence sincere support, and what can we do to continue supporting marginalised groups or causes without having to give companies any ounce of your time or money?

Charity Tie-ins

Charity tie-ins market allyship or philanthropy to potential customers by stating on advertising or product packaging that a portion of the profits or proceeds will be donated to a cause or non-profit specific to a marginalised group or global cause depending on current events or a brand’s annual initiatives. Arguably, this type of marketing can work well to entice purchases because of two reasons.

The first reason that charity tie-ins can be enticing is the fact that western society and its relationship with Capitalism often associate money with an exchange. If you want an item of a certain value attached to it, you are expected to pay that minimum value and are given the item in return. An exchange is made. Not only that but there is an expectation that when you pay for something, it is to trade that money for something you can tangibly experience.

Whether it is a bottle of water, concert tickets or day-old Halloween decorations, you exchange money for something tangible to you. It is similar to why we hate shipping fees when online shopping; shipping is not a ‘product’ the same way an ugly wreath is a product. Therefore, the idea of free shipping is more appealing — regardless of whether or not more money was spent to have free shipping (from shipping cost included in product RRP or purchasing multiple products with free shipping as the reward).

As cold as it may seem, some people may be less enticed to directly donate to charities or organisations because we are used to the idea that departing with our money requires an exchange of similar value — a charitable act is not a ‘product’. Products marketed with a charity tie-in ‘solve’ this whereby the consumer can purchase a product and receive a product in return for the ‘donation’ they made within the overall RRP.

Products with a charity tie-in act as the vessel for donations that consumers can benefit from, they can receive something in return for a donation the brand makes on their behalf. However, large corporations make enough money where they don’t need you for them to make a donation. The only reason they want you for donations is so they can boost their sales.

The second reason why charity tie-ins can be a successful method of cause marketing is that they can justify consumerism. The beauty industry greatly expanded as something more accessible and profitable in the early to late 2010s. Arguably, the increase in product accessibility (coupled with social media influencer culture) boosted the increase in product purchasing.

Because of the boom in this industry, it can be more difficult for consumers to justify spending money on another makeup product. Therefore, charity tie-ins can market the impression that by purchasing makeup attached to philanthropic causes, less guilt can be attached to customer purchases. The ease of the ‘built-in’ donation as stated previously also alters the mentality attached to purchasing consumer items — ‘if I buy more product, more donations will be made’; ‘I may not have liked this item in the end and was a waste of product and my money, but at least it went to a good cause’.

Kimberly Clark suggests that charity tie-ins also alter consumer mentality by associating brands with allyship or philanthropy so customers are more likely to return to the brand and continue purchasing from them. They argue that for brands, “Even if they aren’t making hard cash from the sale of specific items, but attaching themselves to the movement of the month [...] a company stands to gain some major image boosting. Not only does a relatively cheap stunt like this get some actual press [...] it cements in the consumer’s mind that this brand is synonymous with charity — and that boost affects the entire brand, not just the sale of products that actually go to a good cause” (Clark). This highlights that methods of cause marketing don’t just affect the sales of one product, but the long-term reputation of the brand itself. Furthermore, the consumer justification can extend to how customers make purchases online.

Most online shopping sites have a shipping fee and will reward you with free shipping if you are willing to spend more money on more stuff. If charity tie-ins can ‘allow’ consumers to justify their purchases, it may incentivise online shoppers to add more items to their cumulative total. Get free shipping and donate to a good cause! As Kimberly Clark states, “a charity tie-in product is just a gateway drug to more spending. I couldn’t invent a more quintessential example of this than the rainbow shopping bag from Ikea. Yes, 100% of the proceeds of the sale go to the human rights campaign, which is great, but the Ikea shopping bag exists only to be filled with other products; and because the rainbow shopping bag is the only product that Ikea is selling that’s actually supporting a queer organisation, nothing you could possibly fill it with is giving any coin to queer people in need. [...] Look, even if said pride merchandise is not a plastic carrier [...] it still probably serves as a vehicle to get you to buy more product” (Clark).

Kimberly Clark’s statements illustrate how cause marketing can focus exclusively on specific items to incentivise consumers to spend more money on other items in addition. Therefore, the justification of using a brand as a vessel for donation may escalate to the justification of purchasing more products since shipping fees aren’t included in the percentage donated.

Even if a brand donated 15% of the proceeds to any marginalised community, 85% of those profits won’t go to a cause but instead to the brand to fund its own growth. That means 85% of what you have given does not go to marginalised communities. Even if a large corporation donated 100% proceeds to any marginalised community, the amount of money they may donate in total may not make a single dent in their gross profits. In fact, the long-term profits a corporation may gain just by associating itself with acts of allyship most likely will overshadow any amount of money they may have donated during a social awareness month.

I am certain that the amount of stuff you possess may have increased. I am certain that the amount of reputation a brand has as an ally may have increased. However, the amount of financial stability and security for any member of the Black, Asian, Indigenous, or LGBTQIA+ community continues to be uncertain despite this.

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