Friday, February 22, 2008

Save the world, buy nappies

If you have a small child, nappies can become an obsession. This is fuelled by marketers who draw you in with promises of super absorption and all-night comfort for your little darling. However, the marketing has taken a creepier, yet seemingly benign, turn.

While recently perusing the nappy aisle, I noticed that now, when you buy nappies, you can, it seems, simultaneously save the lives of other children. A brand of nappies, which will remain nameless in case they sue me, promises that they will donate 2,5p (35 South African cents) to charity to provide a pregnant woman in the developing world with a tetanus vaccine. To be fair, the company has managed to sell at least 7,4-million of the nappy packets and millions of vaccines have been administered as a result.

I am glad lives have been saved, but the more I think about this campaign, the more it just does not add up.

The average pack of nappies that makes this promise, in the UK, costs about £6, with some as high as £8,50. On the conservative sale price of £6, the amount going to charity is, therefore, less than half a per cent of the cost. If we assume that the company makes a modest 20% profit on the product (and it probably makes more), it is donating 2% of the profit. And how would we ever know whether it has increased the cost of the nappies by 2,5p to cover this?

As a result of this particular campaign, website traffic for the product in question increased by 40%, along with profits. The company has also managed to divert attention from the fact that its product, disposable nappies, is a major threat to the environment. The average child will use 5 000 nappies over its nappy-wearing life. This equates to 130 bin-bags full of nappies. In the UK, three-billion nappies a year are thrown away – the vast majority are not biodegradable (and if I am honest, I am no angel in this regard).

So all things considered, although this campaign was helpful to some in need, it is hard not to treat it cynically, given the enormous profits involved. I doubt the company felt the sting of giving to others one bit as a result of this campaign.

Companies are becoming increasingly aware of the business opportunities afforded by shoppers’ desires to be ethical. At Christmas, I bought charity Christmas cards. On opening them, I noticed that only 10% of the cost went to charity. The cards were 20% more expensive than ‘noncharity’ cards. In other words, the charity component was carried by the consumer, plus a bit of additional profit on the side for the company.

This smacks of a sinister form of marketing that uses good will as a way of reeling in business. The nappies campaign appeals to parental emotion. It tugs at the heart strings when you think of other babies in need, when you are spending on yours. Buying ‘charity’ nappies eases the guilt. The mental comfort comes in thinking you have helped, and those with corporate power have assisted too.

However, if you placed £2,50 into the correct charity box that would have bought 100 vaccines instantly. Or better still, a $10-million anonymous donation given by the nappy manufacturer’s parent company (which generated $76-billion is sales in the last fiscal year) would have done the job much more effectively.

The company involved, and the charity administering the vaccines, would probably argue that the publicity generated by the campaign was vital in raising awareness of the unknown scourge of tetanus. Far be it from me to pooh-pooh all corporate social responsibility. But although the old adage says, ‘Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth’. I think the corporate gift horse could do a whole lot better and be a lot more transparent.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 22 February 2008 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.