Consuming Our Way to Compassion

By Rachel Anderson 02-04-2010

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"Help us raise $10 million for Haiti!!!"

My friend Laura forwarded me this e-mail along with a note: "the subject line enticed me. Then I realized that it was a credit card offer."

The e-mail explains that $75 will be donated to a Haitian charity for every new credit card account opened with a company. The catch: no money will be donated until the account-holder makes a purchase with the card. And in case the donation weren't sufficient reason to spring for a new card, the company promises 15,000 in bonus miles as well (three round trips! anywhere you want to go!).

Just one week after an earthquake devastated one of the most vulnerable nations in the world, a major credit card company had already figured out how to turn human suffering into a marketing opportunity.

This twisting of good will would be more shocking if it weren't so similar to millions of offers already flooding our mailboxes every day. Last year Americans received 3.8 billion credit offers with promises of zero percent interest, hotel stays, free gift certificates, cash, or the false prestige of belonging to an exclusive "Platinum Club" -- all in exchange for signing up for a new account.

These offers are known as "teasers" -- messages that bury heavy costs under the weight of immediate reward and satisfaction. There's a reason for why we get so much of this junk mail: it works. In 2006, credit card companies collected over $115 billion in revenue, with an estimated $12 billion in profits based just on complicated re-pricing and payment allocation (practices such changing payment due deadlines so that customers pay late or raising fees without notice). It's exactly these practices that teasers are designed to hide.

We are all familiar with marketing that plays on our vices: greed, gluttony, vanity. What bothers me about this particular credit card ad is its manipulation of our virtues as well. The ad cleverly conflates our compassion and generosity with our greed. It suggests that we can consume our way into compassion. The more we believe this style of marketing, the harder it becomes to follow our better impulses and give for its own sake, and to trustworthy charities. In my experience, generosity is a muscle that must be exercised in order to grow. Deceiving myself that I am practicing generosity, when I am likely motivated by greed, only weakens those generosity muscles. It's a cheap shortcut.

For my part, I am grateful to friends like Laura, whose critical eye accurately understands our consumer culture and exposes the attempts to convert both vices and virtues into profit. With this kind of attention, maybe we will be able to grow in real compassion long after the credit card companies have ceased manipulating us to "care."

Rachel Hope Anderson works at the Center for Responsible Lending, and is a contributor to Faith & Leadership, where this article first appeared. You can follow her writing about faith, debt, and lending on twitter and read more on predatory lending and the financial crisis here.

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