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See 3 Communications

#UnRefreshing How Pepsi’s Cause Marketing Annoys Me

When Pepsi made the very public decision to skip Superbowl Advertising in favor of Social Media, a lot of folks felt like Social Media would be legitimized. Since the Refresh campaign would live mostly online, it could prove to everyone, for once and for all, that Social Media is better investment than Mainstream Media.

I’m sure at a corporate level, the Pepsi Refresh project is a smashing success. At a social level, I find it unpleasant.

Pepsi launched their Refresh campaign during SXSW (South by Southwest), and my friend Mark was the recipient of the first grant they offered. I was happy to campaign for him. I spammed twitter for two days straight, and, even though I don’t feel good about it, I did it. Mark was able to secure $50,000 so that he could continue his work at Invisible People. Since I’ve seen firsthand the impact of the videos, it was easy for me to feel passionate, and to spread the message. What was not easy for me, was to involuntarily be promoting Pepsi.

I don’t like Pepsi. I don’t make it a habit to drink soda, but if you’ve ever eaten a hamburger with me, you’d know that I do order a Diet Coke to go with it. I also take a weekly run to a taco truck and sometimes drink a Coca Cola. Does that mean that I’m primed to promote Coca Cola? No. This is my vice, not my passion. Pepsi and Coke contribute to obesity, pollution, and bone loss. I could go on and on, about useless plastic bottles, and the many ways that Pepsi makes itself a bad global citizen, but I won’t.

I’ll just ask you, my readers, to be a bit more thoughtful. How much of our lives are we willing to give to gross polluters? Is social media for sale? At what price?

The problem is that saying you don’t like these contests is going to hurt someone’s feelings, and it won’t be Pepsi. When I click over to the Refresh Everything page I see this:

An exercise class to fund raise for Lupus Research is a wonderful idea. Who wouldn’t want to exercise? Who doesn’t want to see Lupus end? I’ll be Esther Nuevas is a fantastic lady, and I’ll also bet that most conversations she’s having today include Pepsi.

All for $5,000.

Pepsi has used such incredibly manipulative marketing practices (I’m not willing to pretend that this is charity), that if I tell you how totally unrefreshing I find this, I’m the enemy. Obviously I want people to have lupus, right? Wrong.


Currently children are creating campaigns so that they can get gym equipment into their high schools. I want kids to have weight rooms. I want kids to have a great PE curricula, but I don’t want Pepsi in our schools, and you shouldn’t either. A quick search at Pepsi’s site shows that they have wiggled their way into at least 1,121 schools. Let’s just pretend that it’s only 200 kids at every school, that means that at an uber conservative minimum Pepsi has successfully branded itself to 224,200 highly impressionable teens. Nothing about this is okay.

Our children will be the first generation ever to have shorter lifespans than their parents.

Our children will die young from the food they are putting in their bodies.

Michael Hoffman, the CEO of See 3 Communications had a lot to say about cause marketing. The folks at See 3 work exclusively with nonprofits, foundations, associations, and social causes. Michael lives and breathes this stuff.  I asked him what he would say to someone before they entered one of these grant contests (Chase had one recently and I’m pretty sure we’ll see a lot more of them).

He said:

I was just with someone from Invisible Children that won the Chase $1 million. They spent 5 years building a grassroots network through offline events – film screenings, tours, lobby days. It was this network that won the $1 million, not some online magic. Maybe there were 5 orgs, from the 100 finalists in that contest that had anything close to that kind of network. The others COULDN’T win. So what I would say is… You have to access your ability to mobilize people for these contests and if you don’t have a large and dedicated existing network you are probably wasting your time.

Sometimes, this kind of contest can get orgs that have done little online to begin building their networks. America’s Giving Challenge, from the Case Foundation, included a lot of education about social media with their contest (some of which we helped develop), and so many orgs became adept at using the web, even if they didn’t win the money at that time.

I wonder, how can we create something that brings incentives for organizations to work together, rather than competition with each other.

Locally The Roxy, The Viper Room and the Comedy Store have worked together to grow all their businesses. Can you imagine if charities worked this well together?

Michael adds:

Overall, I think corporate brands are realizing that no one really cares about their checking account or their brown sugar water. These products lack meaning. They are commodities. And so in many ways the brands need our causes more than our causes need the brands. They need to infuse their commodity products with meaning. They need to give me some reason to care.

At what point are we saturated with these events, and the vacuous corporate greed begins to impact our causes? This isn’t just about contests, it is about cause marketing. For example, Susan B. Komen sold out to KFC in a cynical move to brand cancer-causing food as something that will help in the fight against breast cancer. Komen’s brand now means more about greed than cancer.

Pepsi has another agenda, which is they don’t want us to really think about what we have been pouring into our kids and how it impacts their health. If they sponsor healthy things, a weight room, for example, then they can associate their product with healthy living and they can bribe schools to keep their soda machines and not join the fight against childhood obesity by going after the sugar-water peddlers.

We’ve asked for authenticity within social media. We’ve prized it, we’ve rewarded it. What do we ask of our charities?

It was wonderful and novel when the first few charities secured money, but it’s tiresome now, and everyone wants money for something.

Can I ask, at a bare minimum, that each and every one of you work to keep Pepsi from branding our school children?