Bruce Burtch came up with the notion that a corporation could "do well by doing good" after he created a promotion for Marriott Corporation's opening of its Great America theme park that would raise money for the March of Dimes in 1976 – an event that is credited as the first cause marketing program.
Cause marketing hit the national scene big in 1983 when American Express advertised that with each purchase made with an Amex card it would contribute a penny to the renovation of the Statue of Liberty. The campaign was very successful and generated $1.7 million to the Statue of Liberty's restoration, and it was successful for American Express, generating a 28 percent increase in Amex card usage.
Since then thousands of profit-making entities and celebrities such as Bono, Michael Jackson, and Madonna have helped non-profit and charitable organizations raise money for worthy causes while promoting their own brands and personas as caring and concerned – a classic win-win situation (although I hesitate ever to use the term "win-win" ever again after seeing over and over the satiric American Airlines commercial based on the annoying overuse of the phrase).
But the boundaries of what constitutes a legitimate cause have become fuzzy and bent by organizations and especially entertainers who are always looking for some way to promote themselves and polish or embed their desired image/persona in the public's mind.
Helping the March of Dimes raise money for research on children's illnesses, renovating the Statue of Liberty, and raising awareness of AIDS are legitimate causes. But what about rallies for saving whales or for restoring sanity or for lowering taxes or for having smaller government or against building places for worship? Are these legitimate causes for entertainers to become involved in? Probably.
So, what about Glenn Beck promoting rallies on Fox News that people have to pay to attend and listen to him rant? What about Keith Olbermann donating money to political candidates -- are these legitimate causes? What about NPR not allowing its reporters to attend Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert's Rally to Restore Sanity? Was the rally a cause? (I claim it was cause marketing because it promoted two commercial entities – the comedians' programs – and also raised awareness of an important cause -- restoring decency to the political dialogue -- which has become toxic, and which is a cause as important to our society as raising awareness of AIDS, in my view.)
I have a big problem with media outlets and personalities who are having an identity crisis and, thus, become hopeless hypocrites in addition to confusing their audiences. MSNBC is a prime example. It's not a news channel. Like Fox News, MSBNC is in the entertainment business and is driven by charismatic personalities. The channels like to call the personalities commentators, but in reality they are entertainers. They are people who get paid a lot of money to sell tickets, to get people in the circus tent.
If these entertainers have to swallow flaming swords, keep a dozen plates spinning, get shot from a cannon, make fun of politicians, or trash liberals (or conservatives), they will do whatever it takes to sell tickets. They may disguise their performance by hiding behind the curtain of political commentary, or satire, or even news, but their goal is to sell tickets and advertising, and thus to expect anything else, such as objectivity or balance is delusional.
NPR makes a concerted effort to be in the balanced objective news business, so for it to tell reporters not to go to a rally that some in the audience might consider liberal or progressive may be over reacting and a little silly , but it doesn't make it hypocritical. MSNBC is in the entertainment/commentary business, so for it to suspend Keith Olbermann for being partisan, which is what they pay him $7 million a year to do, and to have him anchor their election night "news" coverage is totally hypocritical and proves MSNBC is in the throes of a huge identity crisis.
Fox News has no identity crisis. It knows exactly what it is – entertainment for conservatives. It doesn't even pretend to be anything else, which is why its excellent, professionally trained journalist (University of Missouri School of Journalism) Major Garrett quit recently to go to the National Journal.
Jon Stewart does sensible cause marketing for his program on Comedy Central (owned by media conglomerate Viacom), Glenn Beck does cause marketing to enrich himself (he's the cause), Fox News is the publicity arm of the Republicans and the right wing, and MSNBC is the publicity arm of the left-wing. Admit it and have a little fun. Fox News is fun; Huckabee and Palin are a hoot – glitzy and fun most of the time.
MSNBC is angry – Olbermann is in a constant rage. Lighten up, MSNBC. Remember, entertainment is supposed to make you laugh, not make you mad.
Until he retired in 2002, Charlie Warner was Vice President of AOL's Interactive Marketing division. Before joining AOL, he was the Goldenson Endowed Professor at the Missouri Journalism School where he taught media management and sales, and he created and ran the annual Management Seminar for News Executives. Charlie can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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