Yesterday we applauded the RED campaign, the cause marketing initiative spearheaded by Bono and Bobby Schriver. It's been taking some knocks lately — undeservedly, we argued — for under-delivering and for distracting folks from actually giving (versus consuming).

Optimistic Bob, one of our readers, entered a pointed comment to our post, to which we want to respond here, because it reflects a fundamental difference of perspective about human nature … and consequently strategies for inducing social change.

Bob terms those who, say, buy a RED iPod, and then feel good about themselves, as simply self-indulgent. Bob goes on to say:

To solve world problems, we need to bring individuals (not big business, not big government) into proximity to the issue and invite them to become a part of the solution by taking immediate, relevant and concrete action that is appropriate for them and the issue.

We agree absolutely with Bob's goal of moving people to concrete action (by which we think he means contributing money, becoming politically engaged).

But not everybody is an activist (actually the data consistently confirms that very few are). And even if there's latent activism in their bones, people generally don't generally move from zero to 90mph in an instant when it comes to changing their attitudes, priorities or behavior.

Social psychologists say that the key hurdle to jump in moving people from inattention on a public issue to taking action is to get them to publicly profess their interest in the issue. That's why paraphernalia like bumper stickers, wrist bracelets, label pins, tee-shirts etc. are important.

We tend to think of such items — from the perspective of the cause — as mere visibility boosters, which indeed they are. But from from the perspective of the individual — in this case, wearing the RED tee-shirt, using the RED iPod — they are, consciously or not, symbols of personal identity. Personal statements, or public displays of affection (PDAs), if you will.

A cause should do everything it can — including enlisting consumer-facing corporate partners — to induce individuals to take that step toward identifying with the cause. That's the real power and importance of cause marketing in our judgment … revenue is a by-product.

True, as Optimist Bob pessimistically observes, some people will make the statement motivated by vanity. Some by a need to belong. Some to be accepted (e.g., be politically correct). Some to duck greater responsibility.

But many, many others — most, say optimistic Roger & Tom — because they've become true believers. And even the ones Bob disapproves of are “qualified leads” for a higher calling.

Having captured the PDAs, it's up to the cause then to move the supporter along the commitment curve to more demanding actions … whatever's relevant, from outright contributions to boycotts to protest marching to voting.

As consumers, individuals respond to fairly elemental impulses that represent the hard-wiring of human nature. Successful commercial marketers recognize this. They work with the impulses, not against them. With human nature, not against it.

Issue marketers should do the same … channel human nature, not attempt to reform it. That's a fundamental philosophical, and then, strategic choice issue marketers must make. We believe that folks can come down on either side with complete integrity.

Roger & Tom

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