By Kate McClaskey

Levi’s recently launched a new advertising/philanthropy campaign called “Ready to Work,” which follows the lives of the real life residents of Braddock, Pennsylvania. The town has suffered economic decline for decades – and it’s also where Levi’s is filming and photographing their new ads with the promise of donating a million dollars over a two-year period. This philanthropic activity comes alongside the introduction of a new line by Levi’s, which the residents, aka the models, will wear in the ads. So what is it, philanthropy or advertising?

It’s both.

This is an example of cause marketing, a type of marketing done by companies for a non-profit organization, what some consider a win-win situation. The non-profit receives money while the company receives publicity. A similar initiative is the Pepsi Refresh Project. Pepsi is offering millions in grants by asking people to post ideas that benefit the community on their website along with committing extra money to ideas that can help the Gulf of Mexico. Some cans even feature the saying “Do Good” on the side of them.

But while these and other initiatives can be seen as good corporate responsibility, they also have the chance of being seen as merely an advertising operation. Consumers have shown to be skeptical of cause marketing.

This doesn’t mean that the majority of company-initiated philanthropy is harmful toward corporate images. On the contrary, according to an article in the Journal of Business Ethics entitled “The Ethics of Corporate Social Responsibility and Philanthropic Ventures” it can “enhance the reputation of a company as a good citizen, instill loyalty to a company and its products, and is a way to invest in a company’s brand identity.”

Cause marketing has been shown to increase brand loyalty – but going too far can also hinder it.

For example, recently Kentucky Fried Chicken recently teamed up with Susan G. Komen for the Cure to fight breast cancer by offering 50 cents for every pink bucket of chicken it sold. Called “Buckets for the Cure,” it received criticism because one KFC bucket contains roughly 1,700 calories and obesity, a growing problem in the United States, can increase the risk of cancer. Even though the campaign raised $4.2 million for breast cancer research, the backlash from their marketing campaign was extreme.

This is because the line between philanthropy and advertising keeps getting blurrier. According to an article from the Journal of Management Studies, “consumers often find it difficult to determine if a [company’s] internal operations meet their moral and political standards for social responsibility.” This comes from the fact that many perceive such things as annual reports of social responsibility to be biased because they are written by the company.

However, the article also reveals that there is a unique relationship between the level of CSR a company undertakes and its size.

“[Consumers] expect levels of investment in CSR to be higher for established firms in more mature industries, since the extent of production differentiation will be greater and consumers have more sophisticated tastes and knowledge regarding products.” The key is the differentiation between “persuasive CSR advertising and informative CSR advertising.”

Persuasive CSR advertising tries to change consumer tastes with its CSR attributes. Informative CSR advertising just provides information about the CSR practices of a specific company.

The key is responsible advertising. An article from the Consumer Policy Review asserts how advertising needs to be “believed and welcomed if campaigns are to have even a chance of being effective.” This includes longevity.

Consumers are more likely to believe a company’s philanthropic activities if they are ongoing or long term. This is because short-term programs appear to be merely a marketing tool to increase sales. However, a Marketing Week article says that the amount of CSR advertising is also a determinate.

“If [companies] don’t say enough about their charity links, consumers believe the companies are hiding something and if they say too much they believe charities are being exploited by the big corporations.”

This delicate balance between responsible advertising and irresponsible advertising when it comes to CSR is one that is not yet fully understood. Companies are still finding new ways to showcase how they are giving back to their community. Inevitably, it is the duty of the company to approach CSR as not merely an advertising tool. Levi Strauss & Co. appears to be striving for this in their “Ready to Work” campaign, given the money and effort going into the program.

But only time will tell if they achieve it.