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I Already Gave at the Grocery Store
There’s growing evidence that consumers who buy products connected to causes are consequently less likely to make charitable contributions or act altruistically than those who buy conventional products.

It’s unfortunate, but it seems to be true. And, no, I’m not thrilled to hear it either.

Here’s the scoop. In a series of research studies at the Michigan School of Business and the University of Toronto, consumers were asked to choose between buying a product that gave a portion of its revenue to a cause, or buying an identical product with no associated cause. They were then put in situations where they could make charitable contributions or choose between sharing versus selfish behavior. In all studies, the buyers who purchased cause-related products were less generous afterwards.

Experts say this demonstrates consumers’ “compensatory ethics.” People have an internal quota for the number of virtuous actions they must do to maintain their self-image. Once they have done “enough,” they let themselves slide for a while.

All the researchers agree that they need to re-test their conclusions in situations that more closely resemble the real world. In the meantime, marketers should think about how to best support communities and protect the planet in a world where compensatory ethics appear to be at work.

We should think about...
  • How can we add separation between cause marketing and other charitable activities so that our consumers do both?
  • Are there other tweaks we should make to our cause marketing campaigns?
Sources: Newsweek 2010; University of Michigan 2011
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