Marketing Philanthropy: How Not to give to Charity

|16th Jan 2014

Casey Neistat is a 32 year old film maker from NYC who once had a show on HBO, makes a living directing adverts for Nike and Mercedes, and just spent a $25,000 marketing budget on relief to the Philippines.

The buzz around this has been a little misleading, making it sound like Casey misappropriated a budget he had been given to do a (relatively) conventional advertisement—which would make for a better story, but is otherwise untrue. The following is the email from 20th Century Fox Neistat reads out in his video on youtube:

Dear Casey, 20th Century Fox is releasing a new movie, the Secret Life of Walter Mitty. We want to run a campaign under the concept live your dreams, the collective theme of this initiative will be to motivate inspire and give people a catalyst to do something they’ve never done. We’d like to know if you’d be interested in creating a video about living your dreams.”

Neistat responds: “Here’s my concept: Give me the budget and I’ll go to the Philippines helping people in need.”

And they agreed. So Neistat set off with his friend Oscar Boyson to the Philippines to bring those affected by the typhoon food and water—making this video in the process. It’s gotten about 2 million views so far.

So Why Does It Leave a Bad Taste In My Mouth?

Because it’s never ok to give to charity with ROI in mind. So how do you separate charity with the marketer’s directive? It boils down to being clear on intentions, and most importantly making sure public perception is clear on them as well.

I’m not writing this as a screed against Neistat and 20th Century Fox; my assumption is that both were well intentioned going into this. However, as a marketer who has struggled with rationalizing using charity for its PR benefits, I think their failures with this video helped crystallize some of my thoughts about the subject.

1. Give to Charity to Help People, Not the Brand

Give because it’s important to you as a person and to your business as an organisation to give back to the community, help those in need, or assist those in peril. As soon as anything else comes into the equation, you’ve called into question your motivations and risk looking self-serving.

Neistat wanted to give to charity, and convinced 20th Century Fox to let him use the budget to make a video about taking the budget for the video and giving it to charity. This is not the same as giving to charity for 20th Century Fox. My guess is that that $25,000 included Neistat’s fee, which if so—then good on him. 20th Century Fox still got their Walter Mitty promotional piece at the end of it all.

2. Make as much of an impact as you are able

There comes a moment when Neistat looks into the camera, slightly panicked, and says “I don’t think we bought enough food”.

And they really didn’t.

I felt alarmed watching individuals trickle away from the camera clutching shopping bags with a meal, maybe two contained within. The video says Neistat provided over 10,000 meals. The BBC said something like 11 Million had been affected. And although the video ends on a satisfied note, I couldn’t help wonder how much 20th Century Fox could have helped, had they chosen to commit.

But there’s no follow up. Did they run out of food? If they did, then what? Did 20th Century up their budget to feed everyone?

Whether they’ve donated separately is immaterial (I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt and assuming they have). The lack of commitment on 20th Century’s part makes me feel like this is more of a PR stunt, than a sincere effort to help others.

The budget would have been better spent on making a video about how little Neistat’s large-sounding budget actually bought, begging the public for donations. That would be making an impact; otherwise I’m not sure what impact they made other than making themselves look better, and all by using the Philippines as a back drop.

3. Use the Business as a Platform for the Issue

The best way I’ve been able to overcome the mental gymnastics I’ve had to perform in order to justify promoting charitable acts, is to use the business’s position within the community or on the national stage to promote the cause being championed—this is especially true for smaller causes—as businesses tend to have an audience.

Where Niestat’s piece falls down creatively is that the emphasis is on “look what we’re doing” as opposed to “look what’s going on here”. True they called for donations at the end of the video but it was too little too late.

4. Keep Decision Making Processes Separate

The biggest problem with the Walter Mitty Philippines video is that 20th Century muddied their intent by having a marketer with a budget do it. In fact, 20th Century’s intent was to have a promotional video made by Neistat. It was Neistat’s idea to give the budget to the Philippines. He’s the sole reason they gave this aid to the Philippines—he says it in the video. Is it marketing? Is it charity? I have no idea because their objectives are so mixed it’s impossible to tease one from the other.

Marketing and PR decisions should be made only after the charity plans have been put in stone and the former should never affect the latter.

Opinion

I think this was a really difficult moral decision, one I’ve been wrestling with for a while now,  and I don’t have any hate for Stiller, the Walter Mitty marketing team, or 20th Century Fox—but I think they made the wrong call.

It’s a good thing that they gave money to the relief, but it’s capitalising on human suffering if they see an intentional return on that investment, because what they have now amounts to a really slick advert for the movie. And whether or not their philanthropic intentions were pure I remain suspicious about what they were trying to accomplish—and that doesn’t accomplish anything for anyone.

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