Companies that promote sales by pitching their civic virtue are prime targets for skepticism.
"The belief is depressingly widespread that those who appear to play straight have an ulterior motive," writes James O'Toole in the March-April issue of Business Ethics. "Doubting the motives of virtuous businesspeople has become a pastime enjoyed . . . by the conservative press. Clearly, for businesspeople to attempt to do good is to expose themselves to ridicule and derision." O'Toole, the author of Vanguard Management and a management professor at the University of Southern California, is a sharp guy, but in this case I think he's rowing with one oar. Companies raise doubts about their motives not when they do good work, but when they use their putative social consciousness in their marketing. What other reaction should they expect? Marketing is an activity designed to promote sales. When a company tries to promote sales by pitching its civic virtue, it's not just the press that's skeptical -- people are. If companies can't tolerate that kind of skepticism and scrutiny, there's a very simple solution. By all means keep up the good work, but shut up about it.