Charity is good, right? There are obviously lot of great causes that deserve our attention and our investment.

But can charity be abused? It’s a question I’ve been asking myself lately.

I asked it again today when I came across John Battelle’s post about P&G Digital Hack Night. The idea: sell Tide t-shirts and raise $100,000 for charity.

Battelle, who is chief of Federated Media, is loving it:

But I really liked what Peter Kim said about how it was an important event not just for charity and team building, but also for P&G as a company, learning to become more social. Just like with Comcast, here’s another example of a massive company learning new tricks.

Donating $3 for each person who follows you on Twitter? Fine in my opinion. Selling tweets for $1 and donating some of that to charity? Acceptable in my opinion. The former doesn’t cost followers anything; the latter is selling a service and donating a portion of its revenue to charity.

Getting people to pay for a t-shirt that promotes your brand and donating the proceeds to charity? Bad idea.

The reason: in my opinion it’s nothing more than a simple ploy to acquire walking billboards for the Tide brand. The person buying a t-shirt really gets nothing of personal value except for maybe the satisfaction of wearing a t-shirt that promotes a billion-dollar brand. Some deal, huh?

Of course it worked:

$50,000 was raised in four hours
employing everything from Digg, blogs and Twitter to MySpace, YouTube,
Facebook and a host of niche community sites. Tide matched the $50K for
the $100K total.

While I’m glad that disaster relief efforts have another $100,000, I think companies like Proctor & Gamble should be ashamed of themselves for treating charity like a marketing exercise. The blogosphere and Twittersphere might love these things but I’m of the opinion that if P&G wants to donate $100,000 to charity, it should just cut a check. Or donate a portion of the revenue from Tide sales so that the customer is actually getting something of value from the deal that isn’t just a hollow promotion for P&G.

P&G doesn’t need to sell t-shirts that promote its own brand and it doesn’t need to pull the wool over the eyes of the blogosphere to get it to believe that it’s trying to become more ‘social‘. If Tide is sincerely interested in disaster relief, it should make a donation and get its marketing team to sell t-shirts that turn those who are wearing them into walking billboards for the cause, not for laundry detergent.

Instead, there are now 2,500 people who will promote Tide any time they wear the t-shirt. And, it only cost Tide ~$20 to acquire these potential walking billboards (since half of the $100,000 was subsidized by the walking billboards themselves). I don’t know what P&G’s marketing spend for Tide looks like but I’d say that’s probably a very good deal for P&G.

There’s a real fine line between doing good and looking bad. As Mike Mongo commented on Battelle’s blog:

Tide? T-shirts? It’s a PROMOTION. To sell T-SHIRTS. For the company that SPONSORED your junket.

Is it really so simple to be re-purposed into becoming an implement for corporate manipulation?

Sadly the answer seems to be yes.

You can be sure that because of the recession there will be more corporate-charity partnerships, which is actually good. But I think wise brands will be careful about how they implement these. In all cases, the customer needs to receive real value (e.g. they’re paying for something that has value without the charitable incentive) and if not, the charity’s brand should not be a tool to promote first the corporate brand.