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Charity - but with strings attached

Should companies really use world events to generate new business?

The events of last week in Japan need no introduction.

The reaction from the video games community to the disaster has been curious to watch unfold – news of that magnitude is rarely the business of the games media to comment on, yet because of the inextricable ties that the industry has to Japan, it seems that many feel drawn to do so.

Thankfully for the most part it's been done with good taste. Only one site I saw appeared to be angling for higher traffic numbers with text and images that were, frankly, offensive.

But the trend I find the most disquieting of the past few days is corporate charity.

There are several examples. The first goes something like this: Company A offers to donate all of the revenues from the sale of its app over a certain time period to relief efforts in Japan. Consumers buy the app and funds are donated to charity. Happy days.

But of course the side benefits are that the company generates positive PR for itself and also attracts a chunk of people to its game, pushing it up the charts and, potentially, seeding the brand with customers who might buy another game later on.

The second scenario goes like this: Company B runs some very successful social network titles and sees an opportunity to create extra premium in-game items, the revenues from which will all be handed to a charity partner to administer in Japan. Again, a nice gesture - consumers buy the new items, wanting to support the charitable drive, and money goes to the good cause.

Ultimately, there are many great ways to reach consumers these days, and new platforms and business models make this industry a massively exciting place to be. But surely some things are more important.

As before though, the company is promoting itself with positive press and attempting to push more people to its premium in-game items. It's feasible that people may use the charitable aspect as the reason to pay for social network goods for the first time and then become repeat customers.

Another scenario looks like this: Company C has staff located in a couple of countries, one of them being Japan. Thankfully nobody from the company is affected by the disaster, but, in a bid to help (and in addition to private donations), it offers to give $100 for every 100 people that 'Like' the company on Facebook.

Even better this time - consumers don't even have to part with cash, just click a button and up to $25,000 could be heading to those that need it. And of course Company C then finds itself very popular on Facebook, and subsequently has a marketing channel to a whole lot more prospective customers than it had before.

There is of course the inevitable question - if these schemes weren't being created, then perhaps companies wouldn't be donating at all, and surely therefore we shouldn't find fault? It's also clear that there are degrees of acceptability, and that some of these ideas are more palatable than others.

Plus, from the point of view of consumers, it's possible that those who buy a charity-related app or item may not have otherwise donated at all (for whatever reason) - or that those donations are in addition to the amount they'll donate directly - so again, perhaps we shouldn't complain?

After all, the idea that companies need to motivate people into giving isn't entirely lacking in merit, and without solid and extensive research on the subject it's impossible to argue for, or against, with any real conviction.

But while I don't doubt for a second the desire on the part of the people at these companies to offer support in this crisis - and potentially look to lead by example - seeking to benefit through the back door by positive PR or potential new business is crass.

If companies want to promote charitable donations, there's no need to do it by pushing for retweets, game sales, item sales or Facebook 'Likes'. Follow the lead of UK charity GamesAid and its chairman Andy Payne, who advertised a link to donate relief funds directly in a mailout earlier in the week. Or just make a donation without shouting about it.

Ultimately, there are many great ways to reach consumers these days, and new platforms and business models make this industry a massively exciting place to be.

But surely some things are more important.

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