Red Nose Day: When Social Responsibility Helps Corporate Bottom Lines

Are US children facing poverty benefiting from Red Nose Day as much as corporations like Walgreens are?

When Social Responsibility Helps Corporate Bottom Lines

Actress Holly Robinson Peete participates in Red Nose Day on May 5, 2015 in Encino, California. (Photo by David Buchan/Getty Image for Walgreens)

This post originally appeared at Truthout.

Red Nose Day, which has an affiliated campaign in the UK, is described by its sponsoring organization, Comic Relief Inc. as follows:

Red Nose Day is a fundraising campaign run by the nonprofit organization Comic Relief Inc., a registered 501(c)(3) American public charity. Funds raised go to the Red Nose Day Fund and last year benefited children in all 50 states and 15 countries internationally through programs to keep children and young people safe, healthy and educated. Comic Relief Inc. in the US and Comic Relief UK are independent sister organizations that are joined by their shared vision of a just world, free from poverty and the mission to drive positive change through the power of entertainment.

The Red Nose Day website notes that it “is not connected to the former American charity Comic Relief that was supported by Billy Crystal, Robin Williams and Whoopi Goldberg.”

The sponsoring corporations reap a windfall in PR and imply youth poverty will disappear if we just keep on buying red noses, watching comedy on NBC, having fun and making donations!

The US Red Nose Day initiative distributes the money it raises to charities in the US, including the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, Oxfam of America, Covenant House and the National Council of Raza. There appears little doubt from the statistics cited on the Red Nose Day website that some poor children are indeed aided by the Red Nose Day commercial tie-in efforts, and that some incremental good will come out of the initiative.

Red Nose Day is officially on May 26, when “a live two-hour primetime television event that brings together the biggest stars for a night of fun and laughs” — as described on the Red Nose Day website — will air on NBC. In 2015, according to the site, “Red Nose Day raised $23 million, changing the lives of children all over the USA and around the world.”

The campaign’s slogan — “Laugh. Give. Save a kid” — does raise pesky questions about a corporate promotional charity event that unabashedly offers to combine fun, comedy and helping “kids who need it most.” That is because it does not appear that any systemic change results from Red Nose Day that would permanently reduce or eliminate poverty, and $23 million is a paltry amount, when a sea of transformative change is needed. Red noses are not going to eliminate, reduce or have a significant impact on the condition of youth poverty in the United States.

Meanwhile, the sponsoring corporations reap a windfall in PR and imply youth poverty will disappear if we just keep on buying red noses, watching comedy on NBC, having fun and making donations!

Walgreens, the largest drugstore chain in the world, after it merged with Duane Reade [formerly a subsidiary of Alliance Boots], is a primary beneficiary of corporate PR goodwill — and let’s not forget the attraction of shoppers through its promotion of Red Nose Day. This will particularly benefit Walgreens because it is, as the Red Nose Day site announces, the only place to buy your official Red Nose and “get seriously silly for a good cause” flair. Red Nose “fun” products cannot be ordered online, so donors/shoppers must go to Walgreens stores where they might just be tempted to make other purchases. The Walgreens’ marketing department just may be factoring the following considerations into their participation in Red Nose Day: it builds goodwill, it generates a surge of unpaid advertising and it attracts customers to their stores.

Walgreens notes that “proceeds [from the sale of Red Nose items] benefit children and young people in the US and some of the poorest communities in the world.” However, there’s another kind of benefit at work in this sort of charity initiative: making money. A Walgreens web page, for instance, asks consumers to “help fight kids’ poverty by purchasing items from these proud supporters.” The corporate sponsors of Red Nose Day are listed below the appeal. It is not clarified how buying a Coca-Cola is going to benefit a child in poverty, but we’ll take Walgreens word for it — that is, with a good deal of skepticism.

We don’t want to stomp on charitable giving. However, isn’t it a bit of unconscionable hyperbole when talking about children and poverty in the US to declare on the Red Nose Day website: “The donations you give will do amazing things. Just $1 can change a life.”

According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, “More than 16 million children in the United States – 22 percent of all children – live in families with incomes below the federal poverty level.” The National Center pointedly remarks on US youth poverty in general:

Other industrialized nations have lower poverty rates because they seek to prevent hardship by providing assistance to all families. These supports include “child allowances” (typically cash supplements), child care assistance, health coverage, paid family leave and other supports that help offset the cost of raising children.

But the US takes a different policy approach. Our nation does little to assist low-income working families unless they hit rock bottom. And then, such families are eligible only for means-tested benefits that tend to be highly stigmatized; most families who need help receive little or none. (One notable exception is the federal Earned Income Tax Credit.)

In short, high rates of child poverty and income inequality in the US can be reduced, but effective, widespread and long-lasting change will require shifts in both national policy and the economy.

It is understandable that many people may donate to Red Nose Day in the belief that they are contributing to reducing poverty, but unfortunately, the Red Nose Day initiative is all too familiar: a corporate-sponsored event that is also a marketing opportunity — conducted in conjunction with NGOs — and has little impact on the condition it is allegedly addressing.

The result is that large numbers of children continue to live in poverty in the United States. Severe childhood poverty is currently a permanent feature of the nation’s economic structure. Red Nose Days will not change that sordid reality; only radical adjustments to the economic system will.

Mark Karlin

Mark Karlin is the editor of BuzzFlash at Truthout. He served as editor and publisher of BuzzFlash for 10 years before joining Truthout in 2010. BuzzFlash has won four Project Censored Awards.