Friday, November 14, 2008

Breathing Oxygen for a Cure

Don't get me wrong. I am as opposed to breast cancer, autism and multiple sclerosis as the next guy. These are all terrible diseases and it's a great thing that so much is being done to find cures for them. But it just might possibly be that the world of do-something-to-find-a-cure has gotten a bit out of hand. This occurred to me one morning when I bumbled into the kitchen, pulled my breakfast-making supplies out of the 'fridge, and realized that my english muffins and my creamcheese were breast cancer awareness english muffins and breast cancer awareness creamcheese. The pink ribbons on the packages said it all, almost, and the glowing narratives on the back filled in all the gaps. What a heroic person I was for having purchased such an altruistic breakfast.

Raising money for good causes isn't anything new. But the feel of it has changed. In the not so distant past, didn’t awareness campaigns center on big, crazy endeavors? Like walking across the country? Or, if you were missing a leg, hobbling across the country on crutches? Or, if you were missing both legs, dragging yourself across the country with your arms? Seems like the stakes have been reduced. Locally, in my neck of the woods, there's the Pan-Mass challenge, where people ride bikes across the state of Massachusetts. That's a big deal. And there are all kinds of breast cancer walks. Lots of people take part. So OK, very inclusive. Some of the walks are long-ish, some just a mile or two. Nice thought; not a huge commitment.

But spreading creamcheese on a piece of bread and eating it with your coffee and morning paper? Really not all that impressive. Are we supposed to feel like, by buying food with a pink ribbon painted on the wrapper, we’re really doing something to further a good cause? Maybe all of this is related to the grade-inflated, self-esteem-obsessed, Lake Wobegon world that the upper echelon of the U.S. has become. In the mean old days, you had to do something meaningful and hard to raise awareness for a cause. Now you just have to eat breakfast.

OK. But why not? We don’t all have the will / time / resources/ commitment to shelf our daily lives and set out to windsurf across the Atlantic or moon-walk up the side of Kilimanjaro. Is there really something wrong with chipping in a few cents via our processed breakfast condiments for a good cause? Well maybe yeah. I’m skeptical about any charitable anything that happens through a corporation. Corporations are set up for one purpose and one purpose only – creating value for their shareholders. Corporations aren’t people. They can’t experience altruism. They don’t exist to make the world a better place. And if they do too many things that reduce profits for their owners, their owners dump them for other corporations that treat them better.

But how can that be, when every CEO says that being a good corporate citizen is good business (see e.g. interview with CEO of sponsoring company at the end of every PGA tour event ever in history)? Being a good citizen is good advertising. Advertising, if it hits a nerve, is good business. Being a good corporate citizen is good business if, by being a good corporate citizen, the corporation is supporting something that everyone likes, creating good will in the minds of consumers. You’re not likely to ever come across NAMBLA orange juice or greyhound racing bottled water. There’s nothing wrong with corporations doing what corporations do. What’s wrong is when advertising is dressed up to look like something more than what it is. I’m sure that some portion of the profits from my creamcheese does go to support breast cancer research. But how would I know how much? The corporation that makes my creamy morning deliciousness would gladly disclose in a press release the big figure that is donated each year, but it’s still just an ad. And I am positive that, whatever the number is, it would be exponentially higher if people gave a little spare change here and there to Good Cause Charity itself instead of to Good Cause Charity via Monsanto / Kraft / Pepsico / Unilever.

As consumers, we all know how to play the advertising game. We’re told that buying a product will make us stronger, sexier (some chance of a four hour erection, but that’s rare), richer and less bald, but we know, sort of, at some level, that it’s not true. Buying a fight-for-a-cure-product is no different. It maybe kinda does do something good but, in the end, it’s really just another focus group-tested campaign designed to separate us from a dollar. So kudos to us all for walking a mile for a good cause. Really. It’s great exposure and it does certainly get some money to where it should go. But let’s cut out the corporate middle man and let breakfast just be breakfast.


jms1 said...

Dan- your problem is that your still eating corporate dairy products. Really at you age you don't need milk products anymore. Why my soy yogurt containers say nothing about any of this :-)

Rich said...

Wait - so is the issue with efficiency or the whore-like nature of the whole thing? Or both?

Dan J said...

A little of the former; much more of the latter. Nothing wrong with the whore-like nature of advertising generally, as long as it's not disguised as someting do-goody.

Rich said...

Well, it is do-goody, no? I mean, granted it is a corporation getting something as well as giving something, but that means the entity is less a mo-fo. Still a mo-fo, but one with a soft side.

Wait, are we as Followers supposed to be discussing posts with The Oracle? Or should we just be reading and nodding in agreement like some DOJ employee reading a torture memo?