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. Marc Maxson says:

    I never thought about the bing offer as any more self serving than many CSR offers originating from both mom & pop shops and corporations alike. My blog (http://chewychunks.wordpress.com/2011/03/17/globalgiving-agile-approach-to-the-japan-earthquake-disaster-and-international-development/) demonstrates that the timeline of reactions from the first 5 days post-quake reflects America in a microcosm – everything from racism, to reciprocation, to altruism; most overwhelmingly it is EMPATHY that swarms the rest.

    But as you can see, someone opening their home to earthquake victims is sharing a bit more altruistically than the jeweler offering to donate 10% of your purchase.

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  2. Bryce says:

    I think there may be a distinction between a company marketing a product with a donation and just using the donation to change how people think of the company as a whole. It’s a difference of subtley, people don’t want the explicit connection between the donation and the profit motive.

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  3. Eric M. Jones says:

    Headline: Jap Scientists call in Mothra and Godzilla to stomp out atomic fires.

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  4. jblog says:

    I think sometimes people forget that companies like Microsoft are commercial entities — virtually everything they do is marketing.

    In a case like this, as long as it’s done tastefully and to the mutual benefit of society and the company (as opposed the Kenneth Cole Egypt incident or the botched Groupon Tibet Superbowl ad), I don’t know what anybody gets all wound up about it.

    And I would suspect Microsoft is donating far more to Japan earthquake relief than the people complaining about this — classic case of putting money where your mouth is.

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  5. Dave says:

    Look at this story from an Apple employee in Japan. http://kevinrose.com/blogg/2011/3/14/apples-role-in-japan-during-the-tohoku-earthquake.html. Now which company looks good

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    • Heelo says:

      Did you know that Apple’s charity budget is $0?

      When Steve Jobs arrived, he immediately ceased charitable corporate donations on the basis that Apple wasn’t profitable at the time. Now, after a decade of blockbuster profits, the world’s most profitable non-oil company continues to refrain from charitable contributions.

      Microsoft, on the other hand, had (via corporate-organized employee donations and company matching) donated $2.5 billion through 2006.

      If you want to evaluate which company has a more well-developed sense of corporate responsibility, it’s not even close.

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  6. David Ricardo Sanchez says:

    Alas dean…. very well put. Be it bad or good publicity it got Microsoft on the spotlight. Right, very many of you will argue that they wouldn’t want that kind of negative spotlight on them. However, ask yourself was it that bad?
    As the saying goes

    “There is only one thing worse than being talked about and that is NOT being talked about.”

    or the apparent words PT Barnum said (not conclusively proven):

    “I don’t care what they say about me as long as they spell my name right.”

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