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High-Water Marketing

Ah, catching rays on the shores of . . . Mount Rushmore? Fashion retailer Diesel heads into cultural minefield with
Ah, catching rays on the shores of . . . Mount Rushmore? Fashion retailer Diesel heads into cultural minefield with "Global Warming Ready" ad campaign. (Diesel)

Skey says her research indicates that young people care about brands doing good, that they look for fairly visible and superficial signs of this goodness (like packaging and advertising) and that they respond to different issues depending on their age. Kids tend to like animal rights because they have pets, Skey says, but they don't get interested in environmental causes till they're in college. Smart marketers pay attention to this stuff when they're choosing what to champion. Skey says she has witnessed cause marketing become more frenetic in the last two years, as companies launch shorter campaigns aimed at capitalizing on whatever disease or tragedy is hot at the moment.

Maybe guilt is the new black. We want to believe we are not just buying a garment; we are helping find a cure for AIDS. We especially want others to know of our valiant efforts to cure AIDS. A garment that communicates this, such as a Product Red T-shirt purchased at the Gap, fulfills both missions. The proclamation of one's own goodness is viewed by young people as "an extension of the personal brand," says Valerie Seckler, who covers advertising and marketing for Women's Wear Daily.

Once upon a time, Seckler points out, the sort of people "who attached themselves to causes . . . really drew a line between that kind of activity and going out and greasing the capitalist wheels."

These days, we are Caring(TM).

Is there a tension here? You betcha. Cause marketing soothes the compunctions of a mass-consumption culture at the same time that it contributes to that excess. It allows us to be giving at the same time that we are selfish. In a recent television ad, actor Ron Livingston tells viewers that if they buy the Red Motorazr cellphone from Sprint, a portion of the proceeds will go toward the problem of AIDS in Africa.

"You also get this very sleek red phone," Livingston says. "Just in case, you know, the saving lives part wasn't enough."

So a campaign that encourages the consumer to do something good, so long as that thing doesn't require changes in a glamorous lifestyle -- such a campaign makes a lot of sense. That's what cause marketing has been pushing all along. The fashion comes first. Diesel may bill its campaign as arch, but there's an underlying honesty.

"We are a fashion brand," Das says by phone from Italy. "We want to sell product. We don't do anything more or less."

How crass. Or refreshing. Depending on how you take it.

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