Page 3 untainted?

A somewhat surprising announcement by The Sun that from now on every Tuesday Page 3 models will be part of a campaign to raise awareness on breast cancer (“check ’em Tuesday” in the poetic words of The Sun) caught some commentators off guard: How should one feel about mixing the sexist page with health promotion?

Obviously, The Sun thinks this combination is a great idea. The Guardian quotes editor David Dinsmore saying “I’m really proud being part of this […] .We thought we could do some real good with page 3”. Others might see this campaign differently. Breast cancer victims themselves, for instance, might see this campaign as similar to the Taliban supporting the preservation of cultural heritage (or Woody Allen and Roman Polanski raising awareness of child molestation, more here on this topic) since part of their emotional suffering stems from the breast-centric view of woman that Page 3 models normally help to promote. So, is The Sun helping or hurting the reputation of the embattled Page 3 with this campaign?

In a recent paper, George Newman and Daylian Cain looked at what happens if people and companies behave altruistically in the service of self-interest. In one study, for instance, participants learned about a man trying to gain the affection of a woman by volunteering at her workplace. Some participants read that she worked at a homeless shelter – volunteering here is an altruistic behaviour – whereas others read that she worked at the coffee shop – volunteering here is not altruistic. When asked to rate the man, participants who read that he volunteered at the shelter judged him as less moral and as less ethical than participants who read that he volunteered at the coffee shop. Even more surprising, participants did not rate the different types of behaviour – volunteering at a homeless shelter or at a coffee shop – differently in terms of the contribution to society. In the minds of your fellow citizens, if you do it for selfish reasons, helping the homeless is just like serving coffee.

The authors called the phenomenon tainted altruism: We judge people who try to achieve charitable and personal benefits at the same time more negatively than people who only behave selfishly. There are some striking real world examples of tainted altruism. Daniel Palotta’s case – which the authors cited as inspiration for their research – is such an example. Palotta run a for-profit company that organized events to raise donations for, among other causes, breast cancer. The company was highly successful, raising hundreds of millions of dollars. However, after nine years in business, the company collapsed when Palotta’s annual salary of approximately $400,000 became public knowledge. People were morally outraged upon learning about this salary, even though he was raising enormous sums for charity. One breast cancer organization, which started to organize their own events after the collapse of Palotta’s company, said that their donations dropped from $71 million to about $11 million. Similar, Newman and Cain found in another study that participants viewed making a profit from a charitable initiative as being less moral than making a profit from a business venture. If you are a person like Palotta raising millions for charity and making a comfortable living doing so, people will perceive you as greedier and as less moral than a person who works at a bank, earning the same salary (see this article for what happens when community-oriented organizations use commercial marketing strategies).

Why do people feel that way? Newman and Cain argue that tainted altruism depends on the way people construct the situation. If someone volunteers in a homeless shelter or raises money for charities for selfish reasons, people intuitively compare it with the same behaviour performed without selfish reasons, and thereby come to the conclusion that the person does not act as altruistically as he or she could. Yet, when someone does something purely out of self-interest (e.g., working at a bank), people do not compare this to an altruistic alternative. The same seems to be true when we judge companies. In their last study, for instance, Newman and Cain looked at a real-world initiative, the Gap (RED) campaign, which donates 50% of the profits of certain products to prevent the spread of HIV and malaria. If participants were reminded that Gap keeps 50% of the profits, highlighting the selfish aspect, the Gap received meager morality, trustworthiness, and liking ratings. Yet, if participants were reminded that Gap does not need to donate any money, then participants rated the company more highly. In other words, our moral judgments depend on which alternative behaviour we contrast a company’s action with.

This brings us back to The Sun. The tainted altruism effect suggests that if people suspect selfish interest behind the breast cancer awareness campaign, then the campaign will most likely backfire. Take for instance Gaby Hinsliff in the Guardian. Already in the headline, she ensures the reader that she still hates Page 3. However, while seeing the campaign as a worthwhile cause, she immediately contrasts it with an even better alternative: “This is the best Page 3 the Sun will ever run. What a shame they didn’t go out on a high, and make it the last.” Using altruistic means to achieve self-interested ends is a tricky endeavour. Once started, people might wonder about what else you or a company could do, and use this standard to judge. On the plus side for The Sun, it might be hard to damage the image of Page 3 since it is already about as low as it could get.

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