Was Microsoft Wrong to “Use” the Japanese Earthquake for Marketing?

This past weekend, Microsoft tried to do a little good (donate $100,000) and use that good to market Bing.

Here is what happened:

Microsoft sent a tweet that said:

How you can #SupportJapan – http://binged.it/fEh7iT. For every retweet, @bing will give $1 to Japan quake victims, up to $100K

This caused a flood of criticism apparently, along the lines of “How dare you use the tragedy of an earthquake to help promote Bing.”

Six hours later, they sent the following tweet:

We apologize the tweet was negatively perceived. Intent was to provide an easy way for people to help Japan. We have donated $100K.

This criticism of Microsoft irks me, in that it is likely strikingly inconsistent with our behaviors in general on charitable giving.

The critics seem to think that Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) efforts must be purely altruistic. If you get something back for it, then shame on you. This seems like an odd standard. If one really wants such a standard, why not also demand that CSR be anonymous?  And I wonder, do those who criticized Microsoft always give anonymously to charity? Of course, if CSR were anonymous, then no doubt corporations would be pressured to support some charities, and they wouldn’t be able to say “but we did” because that defeats the whole point of doing it anonymously.

The reality is that we do get something for the gifts we give. And offering people things to entice them to give works. Tangible incentives work: think of the ubiquitous giveaways that come in many charitable solicitations (pens, mailing labels, tote bags, etc.). And playing to one’s ego works too: here we tested social recognition, and found clean evidence that getting your name in a newsletter really does make you give more, even though few would likely admit that about themselves. More examples abound. We may wish the world worked in a different way, but alas it does not. So why should we expect corporations to be “better” than we are?

Now, taking this a step further, suppose my goal is to see as much given to address poverty problems (using effective methods) around the world as possible (this is an accurate supposition). Do I want to see corporations use development aid as a marketing tool? Absolutely! If it gets them to give more, go for it. If other firms see that a simple campaign on twitter to donate to a good cause also gave them some good business, then great. I much prefer marketing dollars be spent that way than on Super Bowl ads and (no offense) expensive dinners for Madison Avenue executives.


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  1. Steve Jones says:

    I think you’re right on this point Dean. It wasn’t exactly a crass marketing offer from Microsoft, it was just a RT. Isn’t that how word is spread on Twitter? Frankly there are enough people who are predisposed to hate Microsoft at every turn that there isn’t much they can do that won’t generate negative feedback. Too bad we are so cynical to dump all over a $100k contribution.

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  2. Dan says:

    Google’s Person Finder was the perfect example of using social media after a disaster. The service was useful. It was released timely. Heck, it came in pretty quietly with no sense of self-congratulation. It probably did more social good than Microsoft’s $100,000 and probably was more effective in terms of marketing.

    Good marketing (and advertising) is about making people feel (yes, perfectly subjective feelings). What does the Twitter Bing stunt make you feel? It makes me feel a li’l scuzzy. If Bing had joined the other organizations that donated to the cause and released a press release, it wouldn’t have been so special. But it wouldn’t make you feel scuzzy at all. The feeling of charity is negated by the scuzz of being a cog in Microsoft’s marketing machine.

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    • Marc Maxson says:

      I think Google didn’t toot their own horn because the tool was built by the Random Hacks of Kindness Crowd (RHoK) for open source use in 2010 – following lessons learned from Haiti’s earthquake. Ironically, Microsoft worked with Google to support this effort :)

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  3. Andreas Moser says:

    I don’t even have an issue with the marketing, but I will never respond to a message that reads “How you can #SupportJapan – http://binged.it/fEh7iT. For every retweet, @bing will give $1 to Japan quake victims, up to $100K” because it’s NOT a proper sentence.

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  4. Brad says:

    Probably wouldn’t have been as heavily criticized if it wasn’t on the heels of the much more offensive Kenneth Cole tweets on Egypt.

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  5. Dave says:

    Nothing like human suffering to promote your product. If Microsoft had done the same during 9/11 would you even be asking this question? I suspect not. I imagine the outcry from the American public would have been deafening.

    Companies like this that donate $100,000 then spend a million advertising the fact.

    Imagine if Microsoft had donated a 100,000 worth of equipment to the victims, replacing old computers and the like and told no one. Then when word got out they had done this, without the expectation of reward how much better the PR could have been. Doubt it happens? Look at Zappos and Seth Godin.

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    • Brad says:

      Imagine if they’d done nothing…. which is worse?

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      • Aaron Miller says:

        Why the false dichotomy? Is it retweets or nothing? (In this case, obviously not.)

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      • dave says:

        No instead they tried to use people’s desire to help to promote their own product. It’s tasteless and has a negative affect on the brand.

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    • emily says:

      Yeah, companies donate $100K and then spend $1M to announce it. This is true. This is because they don’t do it for altruistic means, they do it for PR! And this isn’t a bad thing. They’re a for-profit company and they are accountable to their shareholders, not to Japan or any humanitarian or charitable organization. That’s just life.

      CSR is a big thing now, not because companies care, but because consumers care, and companies have to pay attention to consumers in order to make money and please the shareholders.

      In the end, it really doesn’t matter why someone donates. Fact is, Microsoft has done more for various charitable organizations than I ever will, even though I spent 11 weeks on a volunteering mission with all the good intentions in the world. Good intentions are irrelevant if you’re serious about helping people. Microsoft, in being a for-profit corporation accountable only to its shareholders has have exponentially larger impact on human development and economic growth than charitable orgs with “good intentions.”

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  6. Eileen Wyatt says:

    The issue is the magnitude and nature of the cause.

    Offering to donate $1 to something like a high school choir program for every RT would probably strike most people as ethically neutral, if not a charming example of community service.

    However, in Japan, people are freezing and starving, while they sit under the danger of a radioactive leak. A compassionate person’s first thought should not be “how can we make some marketing hay from this?”

    I know the justification is supposed to be “people who can’t afford to give more money will feel good about RTing the message.” It’s presumably the same mechanism that drives seemingly all of Twitter to tweet “RIP so-and-so” every time a celebrity dies, so that the tweep’s friends all see how compassionate and informed and caring he/she is. However, I think events in Japan cut close enough to the bone that many people don’t feel comfortable with public displays of pseudo-compassion.

    Certainly in my online social circle, the trend was to respond to similar RT requests with “I’m going to give without RTing anything, thankyouverymuch.”

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  7. Aaron Miller says:

    You argue that the retweet campaign is the same as Microsoft giving the money then announcing the donation. Functionally they’re not the same.

    In this case Microsoft was saying, “Advertise for us or we won’t give.” Even if they didn’t intend this, it was the essential outcome. Not a great message when the gift is meant to alleviate suffering. (This isn’t exactly a soccer team fundraiser.)

    I completely agree that there’s nothing inherently immoral about a company getting economic benefits from CSR. But I think people can reasonably take offense that Microsoft hung the obligation for this particular gift around everyone else’s necks.

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  8. fraac says:

    Doesn’t work that way, Dean. You don’t get to be irked by people’s genuine feelings when they don’t match your logic. When that happens it means your thinking is wrong. You can’t change what is by willing it so.

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