A Review of
Compassion, Inc.: How Corporate America Blurs the Line Between What We Buy, Who We Are, and Those We Help
Reviewed by Amy Gentile.
Have you ever noticed all the “green” products nowadays and been skeptical of whether the companies making those products really care about the environment or are just jumping on the “do good” bandwagon? Have you ever felt uncomfortable with the idea of purchasing products to make a donation, like Product(RED) items, or donations that get you a badge of honor to wear, such as the ubiquitous yellow LIVESTRONG and other rubber bracelets? If so, you will probably enjoy this book; if these questions haven’t ever crossed your mind before now, you should definitely read this book.
Compassion, Inc. is a thoughtful analysis of the trends of cause-marketing that seem to be tied in to almost every major corporation today. Mara Einstein evaluates different corporations and the causes they support—and comes to some surprising conclusions for those of us looking to do good with our pocketbooks. Oftentimes, companies obfuscate how much money is actually being donated to a charity, or what has to be done to cause that donation (it’s not always as simple as buying a product, sometimes codes need to be entered on websites, etc.), or caps are placed on the amount of donations that will be raised. Einstein looks at some of the larger campaigns and thoughtfully discerns which are primarily about helping charities and causes and which are really focused on the product, celebrity, or giver and therefore seem to ultimately be a marketing ploy. She also raises some of the deep underlying questions about these issues: Should corporations be seen as the public saviors (neo-liberalism)? Do we all too easily buy into consumerism as opposed to good citizenship? Are we more concerned with easy “quick-fixes” instead of the hard, long-term work that is really necessary to solve some of society’s gravest ills? These are all great questions, and while I would have loved to see them explored even more fully, I’m thankful that they were raised and discussed in the book—demonstrating that Einstein is not just simply analyzing these trends at the surface level, but is aware of the deeper causes underlying our consumerism and our tendency to get caught up in fad “charitainment” without understanding whether we’re actually doing the good we seek to do.
Einstein begins the book by talking about “branding”—the history of its development, what exactly it is, and how charities and causes are sometimes being used to serve the brand, not the other way around. As someone who has become increasingly concerned with the seemingly increased rootlessness and lack of powerful meta-narratives shaping American society, I was caught off guard by Einstein’s description of branding—we do have narratives shaping our society, but not necessarily good ones. Branding uses narratives and symbols to shape us into consumers, and ‘evangelists’ for certain products. Think of the “Cult of Mac” and the perceived image that goes along with the brand—Macs are cool and sleek, used by artists, educators, and tech-geeks. Perhaps advertising has filled a hole left by the decline of other institutions (e.g. the Church) and the lack of civic engagement. As Einstein notes, “Instead of finding faith in traditional religious institutions (only about 25 percent attend services weekly), most Americans—more than 90 percent of whom believe in a higher power—find spirituality through a hodgepodge of secular products such as books, television, programming, the Internet, and a myriad of classes on everything from meditation to learning the ‘law of attraction’ promulgated by the best-selling self-help tract The Secret. Brands substitute for moral mythologies that used to be found outside of the consumer marketplace” (15, emphasis mine). Perhaps the problem is not that we have a lack of narratives, as I had previously suspected, but that we have shallow ones which come from the market and promote self-absorption and consumerism. Instead, we should have narratives coming from strong societal institutions that give a larger meaning to our lives and resist the fragmentation and rampant individualism that has become a systemic problem of American society, and which allows us to get caught up in cycles of endless consumption.
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