The “I” in Altruism

Is a good deed really good if it's performed with the expectation of recognition?

Does Narcissism Taint the Purity of Charity Initiatives?

If you’ve been on Facebook or Instagram in the last month, you’ve probably seen a whole lot of three things: dogs, babies, and mustaches.

For the last, you can thank “No-Shave November” (or “Movember”), an annual American Cancer Society initiative in which men earn pledges to grow out their facial hair during the month of November in support of men’s health issues.

It’s a perfect example of modern-day marketing engagement.  It leverages the pop-culture phenomenon of mustaches (a trend currently saturating the realms of style, humor, and celebrity), instantly fulfilling the requirement of relevance—check.  It creates entertaining, customized, shareable content in the form of “selfies” that are sure to spark reactions and conversations of all kinds, without costing the participant much time, money, or effort—check. It pays people in the social currencies of identity, affiliation, and advocacy by publicly showcasing their makeovers and good deeds—check.

And, oh yeah. It also raises money for charity—check?

That’s the rub. Sure, marketing-speak can explain the mechanics that make these types of initiatives successful, but the elephant in the room is intent. Would people support men’s health issues if they didn’t get to grow a mustache and post a selfie? Would so many contribute to the Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) Foundation if they didn’t get to post an Ice Bucket Challenge video? Would they contribute to cancer research without a fashionable yellow wristband? Would they give without the #GivingTuesday hashtag?

More to the point, what is the nature of altruism? Is a good deed really good if it’s performed with the expectation of recognition? And is it right for marketers to use narcissism in the name of charity?

That depends who you ask.

The cynic might say that true altruism, if it exists, is only exercised in anonymity. Any recognition should be purely incidental, not sought after, and bandwagon philanthropists should be kept in the same sandbox as “those people” who only show up to mass on Easter and Christmas.

The optimist assumes good intentions. To them, it’s not only possible, but likely that people participate in things like No-Shave November and the Ice Bucket Challenge precisely because they’re driven by the desire to do good. Attention is the byproduct, not the motivator, and the fact that people are publicly bonding together for charity at all is a good thing because it creates more positive impact than it would otherwise. (One could argue that fulfilling the desire to do good is a reward within itself that also undermines the purity of an act, but we’ll let Philosophy 101 students battle that one out.)

The Machiavellian wonders why we even have to ask the question of intent. Participation in charity is a business transaction like any other—I give something, I get something back. In the end, the charity benefits just the same, and fulfilling the desire to be recognized is simply a means to an end. (You can probably find the names of many a Machiavellian etched in stone on the sides of campus buildings.)

These are the general philosophical positions in a vacuum. But a realistic examination of the ethicality of charity initiatives should consider one other perspective: the one of the people who create them.

Which brings us to the marketer.

The marketer’s ethical position is moot. Whether he likes it or not, there’s a job to be done—a job that is simultaneously easier and harder than ever before.

It’s easier because of connectivity. The rise of social media has given charities access to audiences that they could never reach before—free. YouTube provides a format with limitless storytelling latitude, allowing for the crafting of more emotionally powerful messages. Online payment mechanisms make donating easier than dropping a dollar in a hat.

But with every new advantage, there comes a new challenge. The biggest is competition. These days, charities compete for mindshare as fiercely as corporations do for market share. Also similarly to business, every genuine charity has several charlatan counterparts, casting a cloud of distrust among those willing to give.  And a struggling economy doesn’t make matters any easier.

These challenges force the hand of the marketer. How do you win donations from people who wouldn’t normally donate, in a time when they have less to give, and more hands reaching out to them than ever? Politely asking for donations is no longer enough. There has to be something in it for the donor. And in an age of status updates, selfies, and shares, smart marketers know that the answer to “what’s in it for them” is them.

That’s why marketers make charity fashionable with wristbands, or hip with mustaches, or entertaining with a bucket of water over the head—and it’s why they make the participant the star of the show.

Some may view it as an abuse of people’s innate narcissism. Others may see it as a display of pure collective positivity. Whatever you call it, connectivity is the most important tool in the marketer’s toolbox. Using it is not a matter of ethicality. It’s a matter of efficacy.

Still, there are those who remain squeamish accepting initiatives like the No-Shave November and the Ice Bucket Challenge, noting that if not for the “cool” factor, the droves of fly-by-night supporters they attract would never otherwise participate.

My response as a marketer?

Go soak your head.

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