What Could Your Cause Do with a Full Page USA Today Ad?

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Ironically, USA Today never asks that question in its #America Wants Twitterathon to give away a free full page ad valued at approximately $190,000. Perhaps worse, USA Today never asked itself how the newspaper can use a full age ad to help a charity that authentically reflects the newspaper’s mission.

Instead we get another contest with no authenticity or theory of change. So what’s the impact? While it seems to be generating some tweets from charities, the overall impact will be debatable.

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From a marketing standpoint, the contest — based on responses to date — has generated a lackluster amount of response. So whether it’s the USA Today or its Kindness Community, in general I’d say this could be better.

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Now, from a change impact standpoint, we have a scattershot approach to the ad. No theory of change means whoever gets the ad will either be a great creator of ads or a bust, but USA Today doesn’t seem to care with this effort. Nor do they care what type of cause (health, environment, etc.) will win the effort. They’ve taken the Pepsi Refresh approach of trusting the crowd.

I’m not quite sure how that successfully changes anything.

Ironically, even the USA Today’s Kindness community has a purpose, “Kindness is your daily source of inspiration and guide to making a difference in fresh and exciting ways, no matter where you are. Each day, this site will unearth unique stories of giving with exclusive interviews, fresh takes on news stories, plenty of tips, and links to interesting resources.”

So let’s riff of that for a different campaign with a theory of change: “Blog your cause’s best story of kindness and tag it “USA Today America Wants” and we will dedicate an entire page in our newspaper to that story, a sidebar on on related tips, and an advertisement from the cause. We will work with you to create a strong call to action so your cause can measure the impact of the advertisement, whether it be donations, awareness or advocacy.

Hmm. Encourage stories of kindness throughout the Internet (achieve mission, reflecting authentic corporate values), create an opportunity for the cause to use the story to affect change (move the needle), generate earned media impressions (market), and add more members to the kindness community (market). Just my two cents on this…

#America Wants expires tomorrow (April 16). While I see cause marketing weaknesses in the effort, I certainly wouldn’t begrudge my cause friends for seeing differently or from participating. It’s still a full page ad ;) In fact, below find a couple of different views…

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Cause Marketing Cynicism on the Rise

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During SxSW, Beth Kanter, Kami Huyse and I posted our first team thought leadership piece, “Cause Marketing That Leads to Social Change.” It encompasses our 21st century view of CSR-based cause marketing initiatives in social environments (Image by Tom Fishburne). Key components include:


  • Cause Washing Leads to Cynicism (need for authenticity)

  • Leading with Social Outcomes (theory of change)

  • Authenticity in Corporate Social Responsibility

  • Contest Fatigue Sets In

  • Empowering Stakeholders – Ensuring Change

  • Use Social Tools to Immerse Stakeholders

The post is really thick, and may take some time to digest. There are parts already discussed in minor form through smaller blog posts on our three blogs. One of the newer areas that I found to be important was cause washing. Certainly, a concept changebloggers have bandied about before, but not one that has been well discussed in the larger communications and marketing world.

That’s going to change quickly as cause marketing continues to accelerate as a hot trend. Many companies will enter the foray, not because their culture would make such a move intelligent, but because the marketers think it’s a good idea. It’ll “refresh” their brand.

In reality, they will be committing the same mistake many marketers made when they attempted to brand their products green. The ensuing greenwashing backlash is still escalating as more and more companies try to enter the sustainable marketplace or differentiate from competitors with a dash of ecosense.

Not everyone will be able to bring the splash of millions to the table. Then what will they do when consumers get out-contested and start seeing through the five cent donations?

Beth pointed out Joey Leslie, who said, “Causewashing is hiding a brand behind a cause for corporate benefit.” But the benefit only goes as far as the consumers who get the warm fuzzies for the brand with the laundry machine. As cynicism rises, companies will need to back their cause efforts with substance, real change programs that actually match their cultural values and business mission.

I don’t want to discourage companies form trying to do good. In that sense, my friend Ike Pigott is right. Some progress is better than none. Instead, we need to elevate this conversation so that more companies and communicators engage in cause marketing with real socially responsible motives that will benefit them and their communities of interest.