The Cause-Related Marketing Paradox: Purchasing Products with a Cause Licenses Self-Interest, Self-Indulgence, or Less Helping Behavior: An Abstract
As competition increases, social causes assume a more prominent role in the profit-seeking efforts of corporations. Cause-related marketing (CRM), i.e., the creation of a relationship between a product and a cause for promotional purposes, is one of today’s fastest-growing marketing strategies. Previous research has linked participation in CRM with altruism or a “warm glow.” However, our research demonstrated that CRM does not always induce other-benefit behaviors. Research on licensing effect suggested that a person who has taken a virtuous act might compensate by behaving in a less virtuous or a more indulgent manner in a subsequent context. We further explored how the licensing effect differs with two moderating variables: product type and cause type. Product type (hedonic vs. utilitarian) has been identified as an important factor in CRM. Two major types of cause are identified: “self-benefit” and “other-benefit”.
We designed five experiments to investigate the licensing effect after purchasing a cause-related product. Study 1 demonstrated that a priming task involving CRM and an actual purchase has a negative impact on money-sharing behavior. Study 2 confirmed this effect by using an “E-drawing” task to measure a person’s subconscious self-focused/other-focused tendency at a point in time. Study 3 employed a food choice to assess the licensing effect of purchasing a product with a cause. Study 4 used a field setting to explore the moderating role of product type in the licensing effect. Study 5 tested whether the licensing effect is eliminated when the purchaser perceives the promoted cause type as self-benefit.
The results of five experiments showed that exposure to CRM may contribute to a sense of altruism, but the actual purchase of a product associated with a cause licenses self-interested and self-indulgent behavior and reduces helping behavior in a variety of domains. Compared with purchasing utilitarian products with a cause, purchasing hedonic products with a cause is more likely to enhance this licensing effect. Remarkably, the licensing effect disappears if the cause associated with the product is perceived as beneficial to oneself. Mediation analyses support our theoretical explanation that the licensing effect operates by providing a temporary boost in empathetic altruism.
The insights from this research make important contributions to theory. First, we observed opposing patterns of behavior after exposure to products with a cause and after an actual purchase of such a product. Second, we showed that purchasing a product with a cause satisfies at least some of the consumer’s empathetic altruism, which mediates the subsequent preference for a self-indulgent option or less helping behavior. Third, we explored differences in the licensing effect following the purchase of a hedonic product with a cause versus a utilitarian product with a cause. Fourth, we found that a cause which benefits the self (“self-benefit”) reduces licensing effect than a cause which benefits others (“other-benefit”). Our findings also provide managerial implications. For marketers and policy makers, CRM can be a paradox. Public policy makers and other concerned parties can raise consumers’ awareness of the subtle dangers of the licensing effect. The glories of CRM should not be overemphasized, and proper attention must be given to the possible detrimental side effects.