Charity by any other name

Cause marketing has traditionally targeted women–particularly moms–because of the emotional aspect inherent to them. Starving children, wide-eyed seals and any number of helpless beings have been used to pull the heartstrings of product purchasers. Me included.

A new trend is to target young people. This does two things for consumer product companies: 1) it introduces “charity” to young people, a virtue mothers want to instill in their offspring, and 2) it simultaneously reaches mothers who control the family purse strings.

A great example of this is a promotion that landed in my email today called Teens for Jeans. (Note: I am the mother of a 12-year-old.)

This campaign is a promotion with Aeropostale as the consumer/retail partner and as the charitable organization. As notes on their web site, 1 out of 3 homeless people in the U.S. is under 18 and in response Teens for Jeans was created and has donated 1.5 million jeans in the first 4 years of the campaign. Something we should applaud, for sure. Let me also say that overall I applaud the work of DoSomething. They have done good work to create awareness about the need for charity among teens and young adults.

Let’s, however, look at the subtler issues here. First, the mechanism for donating jeans is to take them to Aeropostale (or p.s. aeropostale) where you can get 25% off on your purchase. Thus, the donation becomes the means to get something for the donor. Second, the campaign asks that schools get involved. When schools sign up, they are competing to win $5000, a new pair of jeans for every student, and a party for the entire school. Again, the campaign is about giving something to the person making the donation. Finally, the copy in the email says, “Make a Difference. Help Fight Teen Homelessness.” While a pair of your gently worn jeans will benefit a homeless teen, it will not end homelessness–no matter what the marketing says.

In sum, the campaign is focused on the giver and not the receiver. What this does–as so many campaigns like this do–is it separates us from those in need. We don’t see the poor, we don’t see the homeless. We only see what we can get from our giving. Researchers fear that we will come to expect donations will provide us with recompense.

Will this help some people out? Yes, probably. Is this charity? I don’t think so, and I would suggest that it is socially detrimental for us to continue to think that it is.

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