21/03/2015 8:08 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

Advertising And Social Issues: Selling A Cause Or Selling Out?

The shoe of New Mexico starting guard Hugh Greenwood displays the name of his twitter account to raise money and awareness for breast cancer research, during an NCAA college basketball game against UNLV, Saturday, Feb. 21, 2015, in Albuquerque, N.M. Greenwood started the “Pink Pack” foundation in honor of his mother, who has breast cancer for a second time. (AP Photo/Eric Draper)

It began with tobacco companies. Liquor companies followed soon after and now almost everyone does it. They even have a term to describe it: surrogate advertising. Often, in what appears to be an act of social responsibility, a public interest message is broadcast, but there is no denying that commercial interests drive it.

It is a dilemma that those of us who work for social causes often confront. At CanSupport we have a very clear policy of rejection when it comes to lending our voice to or asking for funds from companies that produce tobacco products. But what happens when someone else approaches you with a relatively innocuous product such as hair-oil or shampoo?

These offers of support are generally couched in language that is likely to strike a chord: "We are anxious to raise awareness about cancer," or "We would like to remove the stigma against survivors," etc. "Can you in return..."

The "in return" is a bit problematic as it usually involves lending the voices and faces of people who are still emotionally vulnerable as they undergo their treatments and come to terms with a diagnosis of cancer. How should we as a responsible organisation react to such demands? Should we convey the offer to volunteers, friends and beneficiaries who fit the bill and leave it to them to decide? Or do we have an additional responsibility to act as a buffer against such commercial interests that seek to exploit a social cause for their pecuniary benefit?

The media too is not averse to using a good cause to project a positive image of itself. It is not difficult to find willing corporate partners to fund such ventures as marketing departments are well aware that the shortest route to the pocket is usually through the heart. What is the role in all this of the social organisation in whose names the funds are being sought from the public or who provides the advertising materials on which such programmes are based?

We are also aware of social organisations that use third parties to raise funds. They give a whopping percentage of the proceeds to them in return and yet the donor is never informed.

I must admit that at CanSupport we tend to err on the side of caution as we feel uneasy about using a person's bad time to add to our own or someone else's coffers. On the other hand, one could argue that if a positive message goes out as a consequence does it really matter? After all, social organisations themselves are not above using the pictures of their beneficiaries, especially children, to pull at the heartstrings and draw attention to themselves. Simply put, where does one draw the line? Or is there a line that needs to be drawn at all?

I think there is. It is our experience that without your knowing it you could be complicit in something that is not quite ethical. To give a few examples: a model shaves her head to give the impression that she has just lost her hair to chemotherapy, a cancer patient is asked to grimace, a child under treatment to cry, or straight pins are inserted into a piece of paper with a caption that reads: "This is what cancer pain is like". Of course, it is all for the greater good. But don't we as decent people and as organisations that care have a duty to safeguard the interests of those who trust and depend on us? Should we not be transparent in all our dealings? Or is it more important to increase our funds, raise our profile and reach out even if it means pushing a product which masks a truth or makes someone else look good? I wish I had the answer. Does anyone out there?

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