It is now high science in the field of marketing and it goes by many names, but when I made my bones in marketing it was called "cause-related marketing". Now it is called so many things, like "corporate responsibility messaging" and "corporate reputation building", and it has reached its awful, sucky apotheosis in the dreadful, downer Nationwide ad that aired during the Super Bowl with the cut kid who did shit because he died.
It perhaps started earlier, but the textbook case of cause-related marketing was Anita Roddick and The Body Shop. The premise was simple, 'how do you cut through the clutter of a bazillion companies and products catering to women and women's desire for good looks and eternal youthfulness?' Every possible message had been tried, why not try appealing to women's social consciousness (whether it is real or only self-perceived)? Brilliant. Now by buying this product women can feel good about themselves - younger looking skin and saving the planet!
Whether The Body Shop was actually a force for good, who knows and who cares, they set in motion a trend that has turned into a disaster. Every damn company has taken focus off their products to tell you how caring they are (remember that pompous Audi commercial
?). McDonald's wants you to call your Mom and tell her love her? Stupid (and such frustration is captured in this op-ed
today in the WSJ).
To add insult to injury, Nationwide's excuse is more painful than the ad itself, they claimed it was not meant to sell insurance, but to "start a conversation." Thrice bad. First, that's bullshit, it was designed to sell insurance, albeit in a terribly lame and condescending way. Second, "starting a conversation" is the most overused and empty platitude in modern America, it means nothing. Third, shareholders of Nationwide ought to asking, 'If you are to be believed, why the hell are you spending money to NOT sell insurance, but to "start a conversation"? I don't hold shares so that you can start conversations."
The truth is that somewhere along the way, selling good products that people want to pay money for became outré
, the mundane act of buying something had to be imbued with some sort of cosmic meaning that it doesn't have. Sure, companies should be responsible and do more than generate profits, but the arms race to convince consumers that your motives are other commercial has bred a sort perversity (so perverse that a CEO will run tens of millions of dollars of feel-good bullshit advertising while skimping on operational safety and, well
...). And it has culminated in crap like the Nationwide ad.