Manipulative pitch leaves a sour taste

By Published on .

Marketer: Procter & Gamble Co.'s Pampers
Agency: D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles, New York
Ad Review rating:Zero stars

Jared is a sweet little boy whose jug ears and big-tooth smile seem all the bigger with his hair just now growing back in. He is at the moment full of energy, full of life and, officially, terminal.

All month we have seen him on TV in a spot from D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles, New York, splashing and frolicking in Florida.

"I went to Sea World and I saw the dolphins," he says, like any 10-year-old, stiffly narrating footage of what he did during his summer vacation. "I made lots of friends. I went swimming every day. I'm a great swimmer."

God bless Jared and his high spirits in the face of mortality. God bless his family. And God bless Give Kids the World, the wonderful charity that provides their free week in Orlando.

God bless them, and heaven help us all, for when the voice-over offer begins, we realize that this is no mere advertising tearjerker.

It is the main element of the big Procter & Gamble summer dying-children promotion.

"Every time you buy Pampers in July," says the voice-over, "a portion of your purchase will be donated to Give Kids the World, a charity that gives kids like Jared and his family a week at their village near Orlando, because laughter really is the best medicine."

Then we see happy Jared again, and what is there to do but gasp?

Somehow, over the past decade, the industry and the consumer have come to accept, even embrace, various kinds of cause-related marketing. Nobody seems too troubled that the supposed corporate philanthropy isn't philanthropy at all; it is a licensing agreement, a promotional tie-in tying into rain forests and hunger and sick kids in place of "Tarzan" or "Star Wars."

Cynical as such arrangements may be, the end of endowing worthy charities is evidently deemed sufficient to justify the means of doing so conditionally, as a percentage of sales.

Indeed, how could you ever question donations, say, to an organization that fulfills the fantasies of terminal kids?

Not only is this God's work, Give Kids the World is the rare charity that spends only 5% of its budget on administrative costs and every other nickel on its mission. And it depends on corporate donations for 90% of its revenue.

How could that be wrong?

Because it simply is. Because this ad exploits the tragedy of Jared and his family. Because its inherent bathos exploits the emotions of the viewers. Because using images of a terminally ill child to get a spike in diaper sales is unspeakably perverse, no matter who benefits.

There is no reason to question anyone's motives here. P&G and its employees generously devote time, resources and more than $1 million to this and other charities. The issue isn't whether P&G's corporate heart is in the right place. The issue is whether this commercial and this promotion are unseemly, manipulative and disgraceful.

And the answer is: Yes.

In preparing this column, we spoke to the director of Give Kids the World, who said if we would only visit Orlando and see the joy her program brings, we'd understand why cause-related marketing is so wonderful. We asked if she would send Jared door to door or down the beach selling diapers to solicit funds. She said of course not. It would be degrading and unthinkable.

Yes, and now, in addition, televised. Do you agree? Strenuously disagree? Fax a response to (212) 210-0200 or e-mail to [email protected]

Copyright July 1999, Crain Communications Inc.

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