The Perils of Having a Social Cause

Let’s begin with a story. A true story…

The History of the Smoki

In the early 1920s, the city of Prescott, Arizona faced economic difficulty. Even the yearly rodeo, one of the city’s primary economic drivers, was on the brink of collapse. In response, some prominent Prescott businessmen and politicians came up with an idea to rejuvenate interest in the rodeo: they would recreate the ceremonial dances of Native Americans. They painted their skin to darken their complexion, tried to faithfully recreate native attire, and then performed the Hopi Snake Dance at the Prescott Frontier Days rodeo in 1921.

Rodeo-goers and the Prescott community loved the rendition, and the dancers decided to call themselves the Smoki (pronounced smoke-eye) People. For the next seventy years, the Smoki — this fictitious tribe of white, Caucasian, Prescott community leaders — performed the sacred dances of natives for cheering rodeo fans.

Shortly after their inaugural dance, the Smoki also gave themselves the mandate of preserving native culture. They sought to authentically recreate every component of their performance, even hand-making every element of dress and decoration.

Today we would call it the height and epitome of cultural appropriation.

Of course, many people were duly unimpressed with the Smoki club — particularly, the indigenous people still living in and around Prescott, the Hopi (pronounced, hope-ee). For the Hopi, watching a bunch of white people parade sacred dances for a commercial audience was an affront to their identity, not an appreciated mode of cultural preservation.

Donald Nelson, a Hopi who grew up in Prescott, said, “I put it in the perspective of if Hopi were to perform Christian rituals, dress in priests’ clothes and build a fake church, how would this society react?”

For the next seventy years the faux Smoki tribe would continue to grow, at its peak enlisting over four hundred community members. Its ranks comprised of the creme de la creme of Prescott’s social elite, who mixed and mingled at exclusive and secretive events. Members were identifiable by small tattoos on their left hands.

The ceremonial dances ended in 1990 after a large and peaceful protest was staged by Native Americans in Prescott. If you visit Prescott today, you can visit the remnants of the Smoki tribe: The Smoki Museum and Research Library which is, as the brochure claims, “the lasting legacy of the Smoki People,” and run entirely by volunteers dedicated to the cause of preserving the Native history of the area.

The relationship between the Hopi and the Smoki was (and is still, to some extent) a clash of ethnic and cultural priorities. Assuming their motives were genuine, many Smoki were indeed concerned for the legacy of Hopi people. But many Hopi were deeply offended by the notion that their cultural identity ‘needed saving’ by the white townspeople of Prescott. Can we blame them for their indignation? Were the Smoki pretentious or just culturally industrious? Does their altruistic concern for native culture count if it in fact offended the Hopi?

I Have a Cause

I visited the Smoki museum a few months ago. Admittedly, the visit made me uneasy. There is something about the Smoki history that is eerily analogous to present-day “cause awareness” and debates about cultural appropriation.

With the story of the Smoki fresh in our minds, consider the following: I have good friends who walk to work to raise awareness for children in Uganda (GuluWalk); ride their bicycles to raise money for displaced refugees (Ride for Refuge); set up cardboard boxes on street corners to raise awareness of homelessness (World Homeless Day); walk in high heels to raise awareness about sexual violence (Walk a Mile in Her Shoes); climb stairs to raise money for the socially disadvantaged (CN Tower Climb); repel off large buildings to raise money for children with disabilities (Easter Seals Drop Zone); run to raise money for breast cancer research (Run for the Cure); wear purple to raise awareness of violence against women (Shine the Light); and grow facial hair to raise awareness for men”s health issues (Movember). The list could go on…

Broadly, these initiatives fall under the definition of Cause-Related Marketing (or CRM), which meld social issues with public activities, usually under the umbrella of at least one major corporate sponsor.

Cause-related marketing has become the standard de facto for social campaigns. It has redefined our perception of social activism: the “community do-gooder” in your office is the person who approaches you with the most fundraising forms as they walk/climb/bike/jump for such-and-such a cause. So prevalent is the recipe of cause-marketing that it has become synonymous with the very notion of “giving back” to the community.

While walking through the Smoki Museum in Prescott, I began to realize that the history of the Smoki might have some lessons to teach me. Granted, their story is a unique case at a specific place and time in history. However, the parallels between the Smoki legacy and what we presently practice as Cause-Related Marketing are striking, if not sobering.

Juxtaposition of ethnic/cultural identity

Whether it’s raising awareness about children, the homeless, or refugees, modern day CRM campaigns, like the Smoki, reside in the dominant culture (an ethnic or economic strata wherein lies the power and influence) and speak for the “subservient” culture. In the case of the Smoki People, the dominate culture assumed that its activities would be appreciated by the poor unfortunates it was striving to protect, yet could not understand why their efforts were met with such criticism and loathing. Like the Smoki, CRM assumes that it knows best how to speak for another cultural strata—and the result is a morally self-referential echo chamber: “We’re just trying to help — of course we are doing the right thing!”

Commercial capitalization

Ultimately, both the Smoki and CRM were/are income generators. The Smoki saved Prescott’s annual rodeo, and CRM is a branding opportunity that enables for-profit corporations to align their public image with causes that resonate with public concern. Corporations do the math, they know that social causes are emotionally charged goldmines: if a company can associate its brand with your emotive attachments, there are positive consequences to be reaped at when it comes to the bottom line. This is not an ethical issue (businesses have every right to sculpt their public image) until it becomes overtly denied by everyone involved that, ultimately, campaigns for social good are driven and financed for corporate profit. Commercial capitalization on social issues only becomes a moral issue if it becomes a suppressed lie. Large-scale CRM exists precisely because corporations have a vested interest in appearing to the general public as a entities with high CSR—corporate social responsibility.

Activity is abstracted from the issue

Running has no inherent relationship with breast cancer. Riding a bicycle to work has nothing to do with the plight of being a refugee. Building an art installation out of cardboard boxes does not alleviate poverty. Purple, as a colour, has no inherent relationship with abuse. In most CRM campaigns, the social issue being addressed has virtually nothing to do with the activity being presented. (At best, it seems, the public activity merely becomes a caricature of the fundamental issue.)

The abstracted activity (walking/running/biking/branding) is conjoined to the root issue by a conceptual ideal known as ‘raising awareness’. What’s wrong with raising awareness? Nothing, of course. The problem is that breast cancer, ethnic displacement, and homelessness are not solved by awareness alone. Rather, these systemically complex challenges are generally moved forward through rigorous and strategic lobbying — usually backed with extensive quantifiable research — by devoted policy-makers.

Am I suggesting that raising awareness is pointless? Of course not. But what truly drives awareness? Are you driven to actively respond to an issue because you saw a compassionate soul climb a bunch of stairs? While awareness may not be pointless, it is certainly incapable of enacting any change on its own: poverty will never become history just because everyone alive wore white bracelets.

The dilemma raised by this separation of activity from cause will probably be demonstrated by the emails I receive because of this post. People will assume that since I don’t support running, I must not care about breast cancer; or that because I’m skeptical of the beneficial results of World Homeless Day that I must not support affordable housing. The fact is, I am concerned about these issues. Furthermore, I’m so concerned about these issues that I’m worried our awareness campaigns for them are, potentially, distracting us from viably leveraging our resources to actually respond in a practical way. However, once people make an emotional attachment with the activity of a campaign, the critical function of actually debating and formulating a solution or response to the cause becomes absorbed in a personal identification with the abstraction. Herein lies the danger of separating the critical response to an issue (what do we actually do about cancer?) from the activity of a campaign (running for 5km).

I’m a Smoki

Leaving the Smoki museum, I realized just how much I myself am a Smoki. I have signed up for causes and raised money because, well, it makes me feel good to get a t-shirt that advertises what a good person I am. Like the Smoki, I’ve revelled in the warm security that comes with being in the moral and social elite. Cause-related marketing has given us a new social currency, and I’ve proudly sported it on my corporately-branded, do-gooder swag. In the end, I have probably invested more joules of energy into campaigns that do more to raise awareness of my own moral prestige than to actually do anything for the people that I’m supposedly trying to help. The person most served when I click Like for an online cause is me.

And as for “those people,” the recipients of my altruistic endeavours, well, the more I have gotten to know them, the less concerned I am about “raising awareness” for them. My friend who needs a place to live doesn’t need me to build a cardboard box for him any more than my grandfather, rest in peace, needed me to run 5 kilometres for cancer research. What my friend needs and what my grandfather needed was, simply, me. When they tell me to build a cardboard box or go for a run, I’ll do it, happily, but until then, I’m done assuming that my recreational activities somehow correspond to their actual situations.

What if, instead of trying to mimic the Hopi in a self-righteous attempt to ‘save’ them, the leaders of Prescott had sat down with the Hopi and, you know, just listened for a while…

The only “awareness” that needs “raising” is my understanding of their point of view.


Several months ago, one of my wife’s coworkers was tragically killed in an incident of domestic violence. The event sent shock waves through the community. What had been hidden behind closed doors was dragged into the light, but too late to save a precious life. Last week I stood in a local park as a tree, decorated with purple lights, was ceremoniously lit to raise awareness of violence against women. All the trappings of CRM were present: corporate sponsors, colour-coded clothing, politician endorsement, and media cameras. However, as I stood there with my wife, mourning silently together, I did not represent a marketing campaign, or a logo, or a website… I represented myself, as a member of a community, trying to come to terms with a terrible problem that plagues our tribe.

How we go about organizing ourselves, listening to one another, and seeking to better our lives together is ultimately a messy story. Community does not come with a codified handbook. How we deal with social issues is an on-going process of experiment, trial, and error. I did not wrote this post because I think cause-related marketing is morally bankrupt, and nor am I even advocating that it should be discontinued. Rather, I simply hope that we think about it critically: lest we rest on our laurels and simply go home happy, thinking that changing our wardrobe color to purple has, in fact, actually helped women presently trapped in abusive conditions.

Cause-related marketing deserves critical evaluation because the issues — the causes themselves — are of utmost importance. They demand nothing less than our most focused attention. The more we care about the cause, the more willing we should be to critique the campaign. Campaigns must be subservient to causes, not the other way around. If we prioritize our defense of a campaign above our resolve to dispassionately understand and concretely address the roots of the cause, we are only taking distracted steps backwards.


Prior to publishing this post, I sent a draft to my friend Abram Oudshoorn, who organized the recent World Homeless Day event in my city. Seeking to explore this issue from as many angles possible, I asked him if he would write a post to address the merits of cause-related marketing. He agreed, and we have published our posts simultaneously. Please read his synchro-post now: From Every Angle.

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