I’m sure many of us have been pushed over the line in deciding to buy a product because of a portion of the proceeds going to this or that cause that we already agree with. And we already wanted that product anyway, to boot. Fair trade and cause-related marketing campaigns (i.e. if you buy this pair of shoes, another will go to a child in Africa) are trying to appeal consumers’ ethical and moral concerns to encourage people to buy their products over another, perhaps cheaper, product without the bonus of making you feel like a good person.
At a basic level this speaks to a general human desire to do good, but also this presupposes a certain amount of consumer guilt and/or insecurity about their shopping practices. Everyone is a consumer in a capitalist society, but sometimes the outcomes of the production process of the things we buy can make us uncomfortable. Products that come with a portion of the proceeds donated to charity can also take the place of direct donations by consumers, so we can have our cake and donate it too. A greater discussion of the tension between the level of responsibility corporations adopt and the ethical measures they choose to take is surely relevant, but, on the other side of these issues of production, what consumers are the most vulnerable demographic to these tear-jerking advertising campaigns featuring the globally malnourished? The answer: mothers.
Women in the United States are responsible for 80% of household consumption and are specifically targeted by cause-related marketing firms due to being seen as compassionate, caring consumers susceptible to advertising campaigns reliant on empathy.(1) The feminine has been associated with the charitable for centuries—philanthropy has been considered a deeply feminine urge and a nurturing symbol of the “lady bountiful”(2) targeted for their emotional sensitivities to global suffering, but for their personal insecurities regarding their own ability to be good mothers. In a society that depends upon the narrative of the ‘bad mother’ (single mothers, mothers on welfare, and high-powered career women with obviously neglected children) advertising can tell us what it takes to be a ‘good mother.’
Women who are privileged to disposable income are driven to fear bad mothering through fear-tactic marketing, i.e. “only bad mothers feed their children pesticide and hormone-laden food”, ignoring the inability of the low-income mother to purchase or have access to overtly expensive, organic, and locally-grown produce. According to Carrigan and Szmigin (3) “the good mother is reinvented as each age or society defines her anew, in its own terms, according to its own mythology.” The pressure on women to reproduce their gender roles as mothers is reinforced through cause-related marketing under capitalist consumption.
How is it possible to disentangle social projections of women from the rise in ethically-sourced product campaigns? Is there a difference between the conscious consumer and the shamed shopper? Ethical consumption is certainly better than the alternative, but in what ways does this allow us to ignore other issues of privilege and the continued gendering of empathy?
(1) Hawkins, Roberta. “‘One Pack = One Vaccine’ = one global motherhood? A Feminist Analysis of Ethical Consumption.” Gender, Place & Culture: A Journal of Feminist Geography. 18.2 (2011): n. page. Web.
(2) Trope, Alison. “Mother Angelina: Hollywood Philanthropy Personified.” Trans. Array Commodity Activism: Cultural Resistance in Neoliberal Times. New York: New York University Press, 2012. 154-171. Print.
(3) Carrigan, Marylyn, and Isabelle Szmigin. “”Mothers of Invention”: Maternal Empowerment and Convenience Consumption.” European Journal of Marketing. 40.9/10 (2006): Pages 1122-1142. Web.