What likely began as a feel-good thing for companies to do with some extra scratch laying around, and a sound tax dodge, corporate social responsibility has turned into a marketing ploy at best – a socially mandated obligation at worst.

TOMS Shoes is one of the more visible CSR plays in the social media age. The premise was simple. Buy a pair of shoes, and we give a pair to somebody that can’t afford a pair.

Soon, TOMS became a status symbol and fashion craze of a different kind.

We saw pictures of TOM, aka Blake Mycoskie, fitting little kids sitting in mud.

So we all bought TOMS.

While affluent Ralph Lauren and Nautica wearers’ feet told everyone they were en-route to compete in rich and fancy polo matches and boating events, your feet told everyone that you just bought a pair of shoes for a little kid… sitting in mud.

You and TOMS were on the moral high ground and that felt good, right?

It definitely wasn’t about TOMS making a profit. It was about helping barefoot people.

More importantly, it definitely was about TOMS making a profit – a marketing gimmick akin to buy one get to free… and save the world

They were smart. They saw the CSR tide and caught the wave.

Not just shoes, but chicken too!

Last year Chicken mogul Perdue uncaged its “2016 and Beyond: Next Generation of Perdue Commitments to Animal Care,” in which it ensures chickens are raised in settings where they are more comfortable, provides better care for baby chicks, and doubles its chickens’ activity level…

…and then they kill and shrink wrap them.

So, how much does Perdue have to spend to make chickens happy so we feel better about eating chickens? Perdue! If you really cared about chickens, you’d open a chicken zoo and let people go on tours to pet chickens.

Know why that won’t work? Because nobody cares about chickens. They’re annoying, not very cuddly and they wake you up at dawn.

Hey! I’m opening a chicken company where my chickens eat fillet mignon, play organized sports in the yard and get daily chicken feet massages.

Buy my chicken.

According to a 2015 Cone Communications/Ebiquity Global CSR Study:

  • 91% of global consumers expect companies to do more than make a profit, but also operate responsibly to address social and environmental concerns.
  • 84% say they seek out responsible products whenever possible
  • 81% of Consumers Say They Will Make Personal Sacrifices to Address Social, Environmental Issues

According to Matt Walker, writing on AdWeek, “A large, cross-generational majority of consumers expect companies to display a level of corporate social responsibility.”

Let’s cut through that potential BS. Consumers may proclaim they’re CSR expectations in polls, in surveys, under pressure at cocktail parties… but it doesn’t mean they’re buying that way. They’re just too ashamed and peer – pressured to admit it.

Paint me cynical, but most people seem to buy with their wallets, or do they?

They weight value against price, compare, and when faced with a choice between lunch for there children versus a stranger in Venezuela, that may or may or may not send $100 oversees and make their kids eat baloney sandwiches for dinner.

So, do corporations feel pressure to conform to societal norms to save the world, the need to launch crazy CSR programs in knee-jerk reaction to consumers’ perceived expectations, to take advantage of consumer guilt and inner peer pressures, or to play them all do they can take advantage of write-offs, raise prices and actually make more profit via media exposure, free advertising and accolades.

Me, I usually buy products and services based on price ad value. If I want to donate money for shoes and happy chickens, I can still choose to do that.

Take Tide’s ‘Loads of Hope’ program:

According to Walker, the brand’s “massive mobile cleaning facilities roll into towns after disasters, helping nearly 45,000 families restore a sense of normalcy and garnering tremendous media coverage along the way—all by turning a cleaning product into a support vehicle and living their brand, touching lives and improving life.”

As a result of massive media attention, they also sell buttloads of Tide.

I wonder how many other people buy what’s on sale. They tear their clothes and gnash their teeth publicly at the thought of any big corporation turning a profit without proving their touchy, feel-good, save the planet side first, but what do these evolved consumers actually buy, in private, when faced with economic realities rather than status symbols and heartstrings?

What do these consumers actually buy after telling pollsters in the study above how much they value CSR, for fear of being publicly shamed?

Pollster: “Do you expect companies to operate responsibly to address social and environmental concerns?”

Consumer: “No, I care more about things like price and value.”

Pollster (TURNED UP NOSE): “You disgust me.”

In my opinion, backed by hundreds of years of American capitalism driving innovation, freedom of choice, and the right to see what you want as long as it doesn’t endanger anyone, companies exist to do one thing – turn a profit for thei, owners, employees and investors.

If corporate leadership wants to help out of the kindness of their hearts, great. But don’t masquerade consumer coercion or increased profits under the guise of “just trying to do our part to change the world.

I call BS.

Non-profit organizations, on the other hand, exist to help people, the planet, kids sitting in mud and chickens – but still, while lining the pockets of the people who run the non-profits.

Even admired non-profits like Charity Water admit that they have to “spend some time convincing companies that supporting the nonprofit’s objectives will fuel their own growth.”

So, Is CSR a corporate-driven marketing ploy designed to help corporations actually increase their bottom lines, or is it a media and consumer-driven form of social extortion – the bar to entry to the cool kids club where companies can sell and consumers buy with a clear, albeit manufactured sense of pride and a clear conscious?

Lastly, you can always bet that every dime of CSR spending is being included in the products and services we buy, hence, ultimately, we the consumer subsides it all.

I welcome your comments!