Is your CSR campaign doing more harm than good?

Consumers may consider your cause marketing as tainted and selfish, according to a new study.

Are you a cynic who sees brand CSR as a means to sell more product? Or do you worry your consumer will feel the same way? Well, a new study out of Yale University may just support that cynicism.

Professors George Newman and Daylian Cain have recently published their study “Tainted Altruism: When doing something good is evaluated as worse than doing no good at all” in the peer-reviewed journal of Psychological Science.

The study researched more than 600 participants in a series of four tests.

The first compared stories of a man who tried to impress a woman by volunteering where she worked. In one example, she worked at a homeless shelter, in another she worked at a coffee shop. Participants were then asked to rate the morality of the man. The man volunteering in the homeless shelter was found to be “significantly less moral” than the one who volunteered at the coffee shop.

Now, imagine you’ve been tasked with choosing a company to help raise money for charity. One promoter takes a flat $10,000 fee, and will raise $1 million. The second takes a 5% cut of the profits (meaning the more money you raise, the more he pockets), but will raise $1.1 million (netting an extra $45,000 for your organization after he’s taken his cut). Who do you choose? Who is more moral?

This is the question posed in the second experiment. Participants en masse chose the promoter who charged a flat fee – viewing the one who charged a percentage as less moral than his counterpart. People, the study found, were willing to forgo making more money for a charity, by choosing what they perceived as the “more moral” choice. The man who took a percentage was seen as profiting from the charity, the study found, despite raising significantly more money for it.

Experiments three and four will be of greatest interests to marketers.

In one test, subjects were asked about a business owner who wanted to increase his profits. He could do this one of two ways: spend millions on an advertising campaign or spend millions on charity and benefit from the positive press and association with that charity (aka, CSR). The fourth experiment followed the same parameters, replacing the fictional business with the real-life case study of Gap and its (RED) campaign, and its positive effect on Gap’s bottom line.

If you’ve been paying attention, you probably know where this is going: participants in the test viewed the man donating money to charity as less moral than the one spending it on advertising. While counterintuitive, they considered the positive CSR halo as personal gain, which taints the entire act of giving in the eyes of consumers (results were the same for Gap). By getting anything positive back from the act of giving, the study found that it’s no longer seen as altruistic, making the entire act moot.

Interestingly, some test subjects were flat out told the money given to charity could  have been spent on advertising, reversing the negative perception entirely.

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