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Think Different – Advertising Good Deeds

January 23, 2012

Reading about the much-celebrated “Think Different” campaign that Apple conducted in the 1980’s recently, it occurred to me that the campaign probably had something to do with enhancing the public’s perception of Apple as a socially responsible company. I mean, if a company was embracing John Lennon and Gandhi, could it be that bad?

That got me thinking about recent corporate advertising campaigns that have tried to promote a company’s good deeds – its philanthropy, its environmental programs, its employee volunteers – and whether these programs have been successful or not at making the companies seem socially responsible.

The first example that came to mind was Patagonia’s campaign on Black Friday in 2011. On that day, the sporting goods retailer ran a full-page ad in The New York Times that read in big, bold letters, “Don’t Buy This Jacket” with a photograph of one of its popular jackets.

At the bottom of the ad, it stated, “Because we want to be in business for a good long time – and leave a world inhabitable for our kids – we want to do the opposite of every other business today. We ask you to buy less and to reflect before you spend a dime on this jacket or anything else.”

The ad went on to reveal the environmental cost of making the featured jacket, and it encouraged the company’s customers to return products that have reached the end of their useful lives and the company would then recycle them into products of equal value.

A good friend of mine saw the headline, took it literally and didn’t shop at that store that day. Another skimmed the ad and thought it was written by a group protesting the company’s products. And, yet another was impressed with the company’s transparency and vowed to be even more loyal to its products in the future.

So, was this an example of good corporate social responsibility or clever advertising or both or neither?

Later on in the year, J.P. Morgan Chase sponsored a television special on NBC to highlight its philanthropy and to bring attention to some of the organizations that it supports. While the program itself profiled recipients of grants, the special was clearly sponsored by the company and commercials highlighting the company’s products and services ran throughout the program.

Kim Davis, the president of the company’s foundation. was quoted in The New York Times (December 10, 2011) as saying that the television program was about celebrating “ordinary people doing extraordinary things in communities,” but the effort was labeled as “greedwashing” by a critic in PR Watch, a publication about corporate public relations campaigns.

The writer in PR Watch was quoted as saying that the $2 million in donations featured in the program “are a drop in the bucket compared to its ultra-lush benefits for bankers who profited richly from the swaps that undermined our nation’s financial security.”

In contrast, Wal-mart ran a series of ads during the 2010 holiday season that were focused on helping people (including its own employees) connect with Armed Forces personnel overseas. According to an analysis by AceMetrix, these ads resonated across all demographic groups scoring well above the retail ad norm for attributes like “likeability” and “attention.”

An analyst for AceMetrix wrote that “philanthropic ads for major brands continue to show strong advertising value. Consumers just respond better to a message about what companies are doing for them, instead of a straight sales pitch. This ad resonates by promoting family, charity and empathy with those not able to be home for Christmas, all moving elements consistent with the holiday spirit.”

Was this response the result of a different era (a year ago seems like ages ago) or was the company’s approach less controversial and thus less prone to criticism? Good CSR? Good advertising? The right combination of both?

As I mentioned in my first CSR Now! blog posting last year (Five Trends to Watch in CSR, July 28, 2011), companies are faced with the expectation that they will be increasingly transparent in their operations, but they also struggle with ways of communicating about the positive things that they are doing.

Advertising a company’s good deeds may be fraught with difficulties on both counts.

What do you think? Would your perceptions be different if you didn’t know which company had engaged in which campaign? Share your thoughts here.


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