Recently I (and undoubtedly thousands of other Discover card holders) received an email message signed by David Nelms, the president of Discover Financial Services, claiming that "Just by doing what you do everyday buying groceries, gas, clothing, going to restaurants and the movies you too, can help in America's relief efforts" for the victims of the September 11 attacks. The deal is that every time you use your card, Discover will make a donation to a charitable organization of its choice until it reaches its goal of $5 million. According to Discover's Web site, "Every purchase, every cash advance, every balance transfer counts and everyone benefits, thanks to you." What red-blooded American could pass up that offer?
Discover's seeming generosity is a bit of marketing genius that appeals to people's desire to help without actually requiring them to do anything. At it's core, it's a thinly veiled come-on for people to spend more money on their credit cards in the name of patriotism, yet it succeeds in establishing Discover as a Company that Cares by making consumers feel like they're part of some larger social movement.
The Internet doesn't make anything new possible, but it does make a lot of things a lot easier. For example, you can now donate a can of Campbell's Chunky soup to a food bank simply by going to a Web site and clicking your favorite NFL team's logo (note the cross-marketing tie-in).
The Tackling Hunger TM Click for Cans campaign has it all sports, team rivalry and a vague sense that you're participating in an important cause without giving up any time or money. No wonder it's already achieved its goal of donating five million cans of soup.
Wouldn't it be great to organize a protest for your cause in front of the White House? Imagine the media exposure. That sounds like a lot of work, though, right? Not anymore. Enter whitehouseprotests.com, the ultimate in armchair activism.
Now, "from the comfort of your home or office," you can fill out the form at whitehouseprotests.com and their staff will design a banner displaying your message and hold it on the sidewalk in front of the White House or the Capitol. They'll also mail you an 8" x 10" color photo of "your" demonstration.
As their Web site proudly proclaims, "Without traveling long distances or taking time off of work you can, with the click of a mouse, send a loud and clear message to the President of the United States, Congress or the world all at a reasonable price." Organizing a demonstration in Washington used to take passion and commitment. Now all it takes is an opinion and $160. And hey, they take Discover, so you can help out the victims of the September 11 attacks at the same time.
It seems like a win-win-win situation. In the first two examples, a charitable organization gets a donation; a corporation gets a tax write off, cheap advertising and brand loyalty; and a consumer gets to feel like he helped. Similarly, both whitehouseprotests.com and the would-be demonstrator get something out of their transaction. So what's the problem?
These diluted forms of activism are better than nothing, I suppose, but only marginally because they give consumer-citizens a complacent self-satisfaction that stands in the way of real change. A lot of people have a gnawing feeling that they should be doing something to help others, but they can't seem to fit it into their busy schedule of working, shopping and watching TV.
By wedding the 60s notion that it's cool to care about stuff (dude) to today's hyper-consumerism, corporations have enabled people to kill two birds with one stone. They've created the false hope that you can save the world by buying the same great products you already buy or by clicking links on a Web page.
Decisions about who deserves to be helped and how are increasingly left to executives in the charitable giving departments of major corporations. Many people have no experience being directly involved in a cause in a meaningful way. They buy a bumper sticker, slap it on their car and consider their work done. Check!
Activism is not easy. It'd be nice if it were, but it's not. Making a difference takes time, effort and perseverance. There's no shortage of people and organizations willing to pay lip service to their commitment to the community. Relatively few are still in the room when it comes time to do the hard work. The Commonspace is for them.