Losing Faith: One Mom’s Frustration With Cause Marketing

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What do you get when you mix big food and beverage companies with non-profit organizations that are desperate for cash? Yes, cause marketing (sigh!). If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you’ve probably already heard me express concerns. And while the dastardly practice of linking health-related causes to unhealthy products is still quite active as this National Heart Month can attest, I’m optimistic that change is in the air.

“Why,” you may ask? More and more people are starting to speak up. In fact, when I researched my post about Pinkwashing last fall, I learned there are entire efforts like Think Before You Pink that are fighting to protect their cause from loosing relevancy at the hands of frivolous, misleading promotions. And when a mom recently wrote me about her family’s experience with food, health, and cause marketing, I couldn’t resist asking her to share her story.

Kelly and Family

Meet Kelly. She lives outside of Minneapolis, MN in a town called Chaska. She and her husband have 3 children. Kelly is a former kindergarten teacher and full-time stay at home mom. 

Q: When did cause marketing first start to concern for you?

A: In 2010 our daughter, who was born with a severe heart defect, was diagnosed with ADHD. After prescription drugs failed us, an internet search led us to the Feingold Diet—a diet that eliminates food dyes, preservatives and other food chemicals. So we started eating mostly organic whole foods. We soon discovered that her ADHD was primarily the result of eating chemically processed foods.

As we began to see her health restored, the grocery store became a whole new place. Reading labels and sticking to the outside of the grocery store became our new normal. Many of the processed foods claiming “health benefits” or touting some “cause” turned out to be the products that triggered severe behavioral reactions in my daughter. All of a sudden I started to look at cause marketing differently because I noticed a dramatic improvement in my daughter’s health and behavior when we avoided all these highly processed foods. It’s then that I also began to question what other effects these foods could be having on our health.

Q: In the past, how did you react to cause marketing efforts? Did you ever a support some special causes by buying certain products? And, do you feel any differently now?

A: Yes, in the past I supported these causes. I thought, why not?! If I can eat yogurt and help support breast cancer research, that’s a win-win. And with my daughter’s heart defect, we especially tried to raise money for the AHA.

Now, I’m not so sure anymore. People can be easily deceived into purchasing of a product because it makes them feel philanthropic. That product may or may not be a healthy choice, and if you don’t read the fine print you have no idea what percentage of the purchase actually goes to the cause.

Also with some of these huge causes it’s hard to see where your dollars are really going. For example, we raised over $5,000 for the AHA but haven’t really seen any fruits of our labor. The facts about congenital heart defects are staggering. Not only are they the #1 birth defect, but they are also the leading cause of all infant deaths. Yet when I look on AHA’s website, I could only find one study in 2012 that even involved kids.

So nowadays we donate to a local heart kid camp that our daughter attends. Although I’m sure the AHA does some good work, at least now we can see exactly where our money is going and what it supports.

Q: The potentially deceptive nature of cause marketing is really important to you. Tell me a little about your story and why you want to speak up.

A: Our 7-year-old daughter has endured 4 open heart surgeries, 10 cardiac catheterization, and countless days of hospitalization. She’s had many close calls, and it’s a miracle that she is with us today. This makes you realize health is really important. We need to protect it—not wait for it to fail.

The experience with my daughter has pushed me to look at my own health and what I can do to prevent future disease. I know that I don’t want to spend one more minute in a hospital. I also have this same wish for others, and I believe it starts with proper nutrition. While cause marketing of processed products may bring revenue to a cause, it’s also perpetuating and creating more disease if the products contain controversial ingredients and GMOs.

Q: This summer Subway received the American Heart Association’s endorsement with their heart check. This month Diet Coke is partnering with The Heart Truth, a program of the National Institutes of Health focused on raising awareness of women’s heart health issues. Campbell’s is also partnering with the American Heart Association and Go Red for women with its “Address Your Heart” campaign. What upsets you about these sponsorships?

A: I know from my own research that many of the products that have associated themselves with heart health, actually have controversial ingredients and GMOs. There is little research on what causes heart defects, and according to the CDC heart defects are on the rise. Who’s to say that the processed food I was consuming prior to getting pregnant with my daughter didn’t cause this? We will never know.

Also, people are so impressionable, and they look to the AHA for guidance. This concerns me greatly. Yes, Subway may be a healthier option than fast food, but with close to 50 ingredients in their bread alone, I’m not convinced it’s a healthy choice. I would love to see Subway offer organic vegetables, less processed meats, and bread that is truly made fresh not loaded with chemicals. And seeing Diet Coke cans with hearts on them is very upsetting because I don’t believe it’s good for you, and I don’t want my young daughter to be misled. I’d also hate for someone to buy an unhealthy product in honor of my daughter.

Q: What do you want people to know about raising money for causes?

A: Do your homework before you donate to any charity. If you do decide to buy a product associated with a cause, make sure you know what percentage of your purchase will actually go to the cause. For your own future health, make sure that product is a healthy choice! And if you can’t find a national charity that suits you, search for a local one. Seeing exactly where your money goes is so rewarding!

 

Please join me in thanking Kelly for taking the time to share her family’s personal food and cause marketing journey with us!

So how do you feel about charities partnering with unhealthy food and beverages? Let us know by commenting below or maybe even sharing your own story! If we can get some great comments, I’ll be sending them directly to the American Heart Association, Go Red for Women, and The Heart Truth so they will know just how passionately folks feel about using cause marketing to sell highly processed products.

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P.S. There are still a couple of days left for you to enter a giveaway for a signed copy of my novel, FAT PROFITS.  You can either enter the giveaway below or on the FAT PROFITS giveaway page. Thanks!

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13 comments… add one

  • Cynthia February 15, 2013, 11:19 am

    Thank you VERY much for bringing this issue to light! It’s shameful how some companies whose products actually contribute to the problems they claim to be against will use these marketing tactics to appear like they’re doing something charitable. The bottom line is that they just want to increase sales, ugh!

    I found this article through a Pinterest pin and I’ll be posting this to Facebook and Twitter

    Reply
  • Ruth February 15, 2013, 6:37 pm

    I have two nephews that have ADHD. One also has a mood disorder along with aspberger’s. The other one has ODD too. I mention diet changes and I get some very odd looks. I don’t know how much it would do, but you never know til you try.
    I very rarely listen to any big entity such as the AHA or government agencies on food. Over the last several years, I have learned that a lot of what we are told is so far off base.
    I am glad your daughter is doing better with her ADHD.
    I’m sorry to her about her heart. That’s a hard thing to have to go through.

    Reply
  • Lindsey February 16, 2013, 11:01 am

    Hi Kelly and Bruce!
    Thank you so very much for this post! I too made a family food change due to my daughter’s struggle in school with ADHD and sensory processing issues. And it worked! We’re about 4 months in and my eyes are WIDE open now at the grocery store. I never thought about the philanthropic marketing in the foods that we no longer buy. Thank you so much for this information and I will be passing it along! Here’s to the power of real food! Lindsey

    Reply
  • Karen March 7, 2013, 1:08 am

    I never, ever buy a product that is tied to a charitable organization. I mistrust organizations that have ties to products. I rarely like the products tied to charitable organizations.

    The whole “pink” campaign has put me off all fundraisers for cancer research. It appears that there is far more financial gain in ensuring cancer remains a killer disease. Fear of being a future victim is a powerful motivation to raise funds for research to eliminate the disease while the product is frequently one of the causes. Sounds far too much like the “protection rackets” of gangster movies to me.

    Reply
  • Lori May 25, 2013, 10:34 pm

    I always felt this way and I hate the cupcake sales for cancer research too! Glad to see this discussed…thanks !

    Reply
  • Linda K. Lester June 22, 2013, 1:13 am

    Hi Bruce, I clicked over to your blog from Lisa Leake’s blog. Thank you for your insights–I’ll be coming back.

    Aside from not knowing how much money actually makes it to the charity, people may see that red dress logo, or a pink ribbon or what have you, and interpret it as a health endorsement by that organization. I’ve been reading nutrition labels for a few years and it’s normal to me, but whenever I happen to stop by a store with a friend or boyfriend, it amazes me how they just pull products off the shelf without looking. I suspect their shopping behavior is more common than mine.

    This one isn’t related to bad food, but it’s a pet peeve of mine, and that’s the NFL’s breast cancer awareness campaign. For all of October, many players wear hot pink equipment such as gloves, shoes, and socks during games. These are highly specialized and customized products that likely total in the tens of thousands of dollars. This is all to… what? make us aware that breast cancer exists? I’ve heard about it already, thank you. If they wanted to represent the cause, a widespread use of cheap, one-size-fits-all pink towels at the sidelines would do just fine, and contribute the rest towards actual “research,” whatever that means. I’ve been hearing about “money toward research” forever, but still have no idea what has actually been discovered… but that’s another rant entirely.

    Reply
    • Bruce Bradley June 24, 2013, 10:22 am

      Thanks for your comment, Linda. I totally agree. The true mission of the cause often gets completely lost and overwhelmed by the marketing spin. Your example of the NFL’s use of pink gear is a good one. If all the money spent on the pink gear could go to the cause, wouldn’t that be so much better? Certainly there are must less costly ways to effectively convey their support of breast cancer research.

      Thanks again for visiting my blog. I’ve been taking a break from blogging to work on several other projects, but I will be back at it soon.

      Best regards,

      Bruce

      Reply
    • Lora July 8, 2013, 1:20 pm

      Very well stated! Now, multiply that times the number of companies creating special items and you’d REALLY have some big numbers! Is there a company out there that DOESN’T create special pink items? I’m going to support THEM next October … and tell them why!

      Reply
  • Chris at Hye Thyme Cafe July 8, 2013, 12:57 pm

    I completely agree with you. It’s really disturbing if you stop for just a minute to think about the product in relation to the cause it is supposed to be helping. In many instances it seems completely contraindicated. And don’t even get me started on the ribbons, etc. Even having family members with a history of breast cancer, the market is so saturated, it’s the point where I can’t even stand to see the color pink anymore!! All of those companies should take the funds they are using to create all their new and “special” pink products and donate it instead!

    By the way, I just came across a reference to your blog in my Yahoo news feed in a blurb about Titanium Dioxide (in a gross foods post). It mentioned that it is sometimes contaminated with toxic levels of lead, so I wanted to send that to a friend who is an activist re: lead poisoning. I’ll definitely be back later to check out the rest of your blog.

    Reply
  • Lora July 8, 2013, 1:14 pm

    I wish consumers would be more aware and make wiser choices. Companies listen and follow the money, if people refused to buy unhealthy food, companies would change … and as far as the causes go, again, speak up! A friend of mine who had breast cancer first alerted me to the 2 faced issue when she did research on the cancer causing ingredients in women’s health & beauty products, the Avon ran their breast cancer awareness walk and she informed me that all their products contained known cancer causing ingredients! Wow! Needless to say, neither one of us supported their cause … or buy their products any longer! The over use of “pink” to sell products, and now “red” is sickening …

    Reply
  • Jen July 16, 2013, 2:27 pm

    I absolutely love this article! When I was a little girl my doctors tried to get my mother to medicate me CONSTANTLY.. I was “hyper-active.” Back then I don’t believe it was called ADHD. I two was placed on the feingold diet, and it worked. To this day I still have to watch my intake of certain dyes, processed foods and caffiene. My mother had to consult a child pyschologist because I was having severe panic attacks, couldn’t sleep, and very unpleasant thoughts. She cut my caffiene.. and voila… the thoughts and panic attacks went away.. and I could sleep. Now I’m so used to it.. i can tell when I’ve consumed to much.. and have to go about a week without caffiene.. because it builds in the body! Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

    As for the cause marketing.. The Pink EVERYTHING really turned me off to that… all these millions of dollars donated.. and what ever became of it… besides more pink products? Did they find a cure? Do the know the cause? I donate to local charities, nothing bigger then a couple people.. with little to no over head!

    Reply
  • Jennifer November 9, 2013, 10:20 am

    I put my family on the Feingold diet 5 years ago. It’s AMAZING! My boys are doing great and we’re all healthier for it.
    Great story. It definitely makes you think!

    Reply
  • Momma February 20, 2014, 8:55 am

    This whole “pink” thing is ridiculously out of hand. I don’t know about other regions, but where I live the local high school football players wear pink socks, the cheerleaders have pink ribbons & letters sewn to uniforms, and schools sell miscellaneous pink paraphernalia. I’ve been wondering for several years now, how exactly are breast cancer patients benefitting from this hoopla?

    Reply

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about.me

Bruce Bradley

Bruce Bradley

I'm a father, food advocate, consultant, and author.

Bruce is a former processed food exec turned food advocate, blogger, and author.

Before his food advocacy work, Bruce worked for over fifteen years as a marketer at companies like General Mills, Pillsbury, and Nabisco. As one of the only former processed food marketers actively speaking out about concerns over the food we eat, the media often seeks Bruce out for his honest perspective. His 2011 interview, Confessions of a former Big Food Executive, was one of Grist online's Top 10 clicked stories for 2011.

Bruce now writes, performs speaking engagements, and provides business strategy and marketing consultant services to help ethical, sustainable businesses reach their potential.

Bruce graduated with an MBA from Duke University and a B.A. from Davidson College. Born and raised in Ft. Lauderdale, FL, he now lives in Minneapolis, MN with his son and their dog, Katie.

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