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Fake Pregnancy Announcements, “Win a Baby” Contests, and Robin Hood Activism

It has taken me thinking about this all week to finally pinpoint what is bothering me about the fake pregnancy Facebook meme as well as the “Win a Baby” contest with the radio station (and just to be clear, my discomfort is on the part of the radio station and clinic — not the people who enter.  I am cheering on anyone who enters from our community).  I can best explain my discomfort through Phoebe Buffay.

There’s an episode of Friends where Phoebe tries to find a completely selfless good deed after she accuses Joey that his participation in a PBS telethon is inherently selfish (because he wants to be on television) while pretending to be a good deed.  He points out that by that definition there is no such thing as a selfless good deed, and she spends the episode coming up with scenarios where she can do something for someone else without getting anything in return.

I agree with both of them (I am such a middle child).  If you’re doing a good deed, what is the big deal if you get something in return too?  Isn’t the point the good deed itself?  And on one level, yes, that is true.

But this is the part that I kept returning to this week:

With few exceptions (as Phoebe discovered) we usually get at the very least a warm, happy feeling of helping another person when we do a good deed.  But I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.  I don’t think that my happiness with myself negates the good thing I just did for someone else.  But that’s just me; you might be like Phoebe and disagree.

Slightly more murky is when I make a donation but I get a tax deduction.  Again, the tax deduction is a small thing, pretty much a token of appreciation.  An incentive.  Most people don’t donate to charities specifically for the tax deduction, but it does change the nature of the gift a bit to know the giver got something tangible in return.  I feel the same way when we make a donation to NPR and get a “thank you” tote bag.  But non-profits need our donations and most want to have a tangible way of showing their gratitude.

Where it starts becoming a swirling pool of grey (and I can’t really wrap my mind around it) is when someone gains a considerable amount off of another person’s need for help.  So you’re giving aid and someone is helped, but what you are getting in return is something so much more enormous than what you’re giving, that it sort of leaves a bad taste in my mouth.  Something like that is what I would call Robin Hood activism.

How am I defining Robin Hood activism?  It’s giving information, comfort, or cash, but at the expense of taking something in return.  The good-natured or those in need are literally used in order to actually benefit someone else.

The perfect example is the fast food restaurant that slaps a pink ribbon on its packaging for the month of October and says it will donate a $1 towards breast cancer research for every hamburger sold. (I don’t know if any fast food restaurant does this, but it doesn’t sound that farfetched.)  Sounds great, right — you get the burger you were going to eat anyway, and a research organization gets a dollar.

But it becomes a feel-good publicity stunt for the restaurant.  They could just donate a million quietly to cancer research and be done with it.  And they may say that they’re doing it this way (the $1 donation for every burger sold) to make everyone involved in the process, but I don’t totally buy that in the case of for-profit establishments (though I think that method is often employed successfully by non-profits).

I think many businesses do things like this to essentially buy goodwill from the public so you will continue to support the restaurant long after breast cancer awareness month is over.  I think they do it because you’ll buy the burger now, whereas you may have skipped the burger if you didn’t think something good was coming from the purchase.  Which sort of feels icky when you think about it that way.  I sort of feel like my emotions have been jerked around for the sake of what amounts to capitalism.

An organization gets a donation, but they’ve literally used breast cancer to sell burgers.

And again, what does it matter if the organization gets a donation?  Isn’t the point the donation or the good deed itself?  It’s a very grey area over what is activism and what is using a group of people.  But I still think it’s important to examine actions, to try to understand the motivation behind them.  At least, it matters to me.


Robin Hood activism is certainly what bothers me about the radio station’s “Win a Baby” contest as well as the clinic that is donating their services.  They both get an enormous kick-back for doing this good deed.  The publicity they receive translates into ad revenue.  The more controversy, the more listeners, the better.  The clinic makes a small donation in the grand scheme of things (my clinic posts their quarterly earnings and if OFC is making even a tenth of what my clinic makes, $35,000 is a drop in the bucket) and will receive more patients in turn, recouping the money they are laying out for three free cycles.  Businesses create projections, they make predictions of how their philanthropic investments will pay out over time.

Most of the time, it doesn’t bother me.  I am well aware when I go see a show at a non-profit theater and I see the list of sponsors in the program, that many of those people made that donation simply to get their name in the booklet.  Some want to present themselves as an involved member of the community.  Some hope that doing so will translate into more business.

And yet, this time, it bothers me.  Mostly because I see the radio station and fertility clinic getting so much more back than what they’re giving.  Yes, one person will get three free cycles, but I would hazard a guess that the radio station and clinic are seeing much more than $35,000 from this.  So through that lens, it feels like the radio station and clinic are profiting off the backs of infertile men and women.

At least with for-profit entities, it’s transparent.  I know that businesses are there to make money.  It just gets murky when they enter the philanthropic world.

It may just be that I’ve spent too much time in Hebrew school internalizing Rambam’s ladder of tzedakah, but I really do think that how we give needs to be considered along with whether or not we give.  We know that there is a big difference between someone handing us something kindly and someone throwing it at us in anger, and I think there is also a difference between the ways one could go about charitable giving.

Was Robin Hood the great equalizer?  Was he just a guy who did a few things wrong, but at least he gave?  Or was he sort of a dick in the way he went about things?


Let’s extend the benefit of the doubt to the fake pregnancy meme on Facebook for a moment and pretend that it actually educates the reader about breast cancer.  At the very least, it jerks around a person emotionally for the moment when they feel elation over your pregnancy announcement and then learn that you’re not expecting.  Is that worth it even if someone becomes educated about breast cancer?  Some would say it is.  I, as you’ve probably guessed, would say that we need to look at whether education (if we’re going to extend the benefit of the doubt and say that education happens at all) in this case is worth the emotional damage.

I really liked the Wall Street Journal’s coverage of the Facebook memes last year during one of the earlier incarnations.  They write,

But at some point, it seems even worse to use the cover of breast-cancer awareness to make flirtatious, joking statements on Facebook. And why is it only a women’s health issue that seems to come in for this sort of treatment? Have there been any such memes for prostate cancer? Heart disease?

I’d argue that once again, this incarnation of the Facebook meme is just Robin Hood activism that steals from women.  And come to think about it, the pink-ribbons-on-every-product steals from women.  And wait, while infertility affects both men and women, those posters for the “Win a Baby” contest are  clearly are aimed towards women (as in, “Are You My Mommy?“).


Yes, I really did need to shriek that.


Robin Hood activism is why I think the creators of the meme do more damage than good (again, my frustration is with the creators, not the people who participate).  What is stolen is the gravity of the situation.  Breast cancer isn’t cute or coy.  It kills.

Back to the radio station, even if we set the money aside, there is more lost along the way if public perception of infertility is further damaged.  We’re angry with the New York Times when they skew public perception and maybe it’s because we get nothing in return.  How furious we would be if the NYT ran an article implying that infertile men and women won babies via IVF.  Which is the message the radio station is putting forth, and yet we’re not up in arms because there’s a prize at the end of this: one person is going to get three cycles.  Yes, the radio station is doing a good deed, but they’re doing it in the crassest way possible.  And for me, that negates some of the goodness of it.

I don’t believe all publicity is good publicity.  I think some publicity can be very hurtful publicity, both to public perception as well as damage to community members.  And it’s on my mind as we slip towards October and the barrage of PR pitches come in asking if I want to write about pink cocktails or pink yogurt containers.  It’s on my mind as I see people posting cryptic Facebook statues and claiming it somehow translates into activism.  And it’s certainly on my mind as I see the hope surrounding that radio station contest.

I think the person who wins the contest has the opportunity to turn the charitable giving around, to bring good from it, in a Phoebe Buffay sort of way, much in the same way she let the bee sting her in that episode.  They can use the platform to educate.  But it is easy for individuals to come at something with a good heart.  I think it is much harder for businesses to convince me that they’re doing things for the right reasons; however you define the “right” before reasons.


1 Kendra { 09.12.11 at 12:36 pm }

This is such a beautifully written sentiment, and I love the “Friends” reference. It reminds me of the line in “Ever After” when Drew Barrymore petitions the prince to let her servant go and she says to him “you let one man go but did you even glance at the rest?” (something like that). I think this is my real problem with what you’re calling Robin Hood Activism. It is like putting scotch tape over a flood. They’re doing this small thing (a drop in the bucket for them) and getting all of this publicity for it. Unfortunately, I think that this is the root of many problems that seem as though they could be solved with $$ (ie. world hunger, clean water, education, etc.).

2 Chickenpig { 09.12.11 at 2:34 pm }

I disagree. Contests are never activism, they are thinly veiled advertisements and revenue makers. This contest is a CONTEST. It is not a grant or donation. Whether it is a contest to win a new car or free IVF, it is understood by the general public that the purpose of the contest is not to get a person into a free car, it is to get customers at the dealership. Now if all the posters said the radio was DONATING to a clinic so some anonymous person could get pregnant, that would be more like ‘Robin Hood activism’ IMHO. No one thinks the state lottery exists to give money away, do they? It’s to make money, and one lucky slob out of a million reaps the benefits. This radio station is crass, and the clinic must really have to be hurting for business, but someone is still going to have the chance at a baby, and with 3 cycles, that is a VERY good chance. Contests I think are kind of crass by their very nature, but I would not confuse a contest with charity.

I used to work for Len.s Crafter.s, and almost every month our store would close to the general public and would be open only for those who needed glasses but couldn’t afford them. The company donated the store, the lenses, and all the equipment. The optometrist, lab workers, and sales associates donated their time. They are able to do this because they put aside a portion of every pair of glasses sold to cover expenses. And, because the people who work there were made to understand that giving is part of the corporate culture. But when you go in there to buy glasses, you won’t see it plastered everywhere that if you buy a pair of glasses you’re helping the needy. Because that is kind of…crass 🙂

I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t have a problem w the contest because contests are crass by nature…but, it would be better if the radio station just gave money to a clinic earmarking it for a needy couple without the hupla.

3 a { 09.12.11 at 9:40 pm }

I agree with Chickenpig about the contest, and I agree with you about the FB meme. The contest is advertising – pure and simple. For the radio station, for the clinic – there is no philanthropy involved. The meme is just a self-serving way to pretend you’re doing something. I don’t usually participate in those things, because that’s not really raising awareness. I don’t think it’s bad per se, but I know for sure that it’s not doing any good.

Good to know about Lens Crafters, though.

4 Hope { 09.12.11 at 10:19 pm }

I’m really thinking hard now, about these kinds of things, and I don’t know where I stand. But I do appreciate the intellectual stimulation!

5 mash { 09.13.11 at 3:56 am }

In India, they have a concept called Seva which means selfless service, and is an important part of their devotional practice. It is almost instantly perceptible in the South of India, where you will seldom see a beggar turned away from someone’s front door without a meal. Seva is such an integral part of their culture, that I always imagine how shocked and horrified they would be by our western attempts at charity. Throwing a bit of spare cash at an organisation when it suits us is such a far cry from the true meaning of it for them!

6 Gil { 09.13.11 at 10:14 am }

Just to clarify… because your readers may not know the details behind the scenes:

The money is actually coming from the CLINIC for the contest, not the radio station. Unless the terms of their agreement changed, the contest portion and having the radio station follow it is the brainchild of the clinic involved, who put up the money themselves to use for this contest. Having the radio station advertise is just that… advertising. Raising awareness. Getting people talking about infertility. And a new study here in Ontario states that 73% of Ontarians support funding for infertility treatments. There’s lots to talk about, obviously…

7 Heather { 09.13.11 at 11:22 am }

I’ve really got nothing to add…I just wanted to give you a hug.

8 Elizabeth { 09.13.11 at 11:40 am }

This is so fascinating to me – the whole idea of the utterly free gift and mores of reciprocity. As my academic advisor loves to say, forests have died and rivers of ink have been spilled within academic circles (anthropology and philosophy to name two) trying to answer the questions you raise about the meaning of a gift. Wish I had more time to collect my thoughts and give a substantive response. Hopefully later. xo

9 Mo { 09.13.11 at 7:04 pm }

Fantastic insight as usual Mel! (never mind the genius friends reference, which I’m always for).
You are so on-point about this. Those pink ribbons are no different than oil companies putting out commercials about what they do for the environment. The only difference is those ribbons are just a bit less transparent.

10 Denver Laura { 09.14.11 at 10:34 am }

This reminds me of a local politician back East who paid for funerals for the homeless in return for them allowing him to be the beneficiary of their life insurance (he paid for the insurance too).

The Win a Baby contest is most likely a tax write off for both the clinic and radio station.

I saw the pregnant meme on fb. I was half tepted to write “Since I’m infertile, I’ll just donate to the american cancer association instead of a fake announcement that does nothing to promote actual awareness.” I didn’t do that, but I opted not to post anything. I did however, call my MIL who was just diagnosed and had surgery a few weeks ago.

11 celia { 09.14.11 at 3:19 pm }

That FB thing is atrocious. I cannot even stand it.

While The Church and I are not buddies, one thing I did take away from a mass was the sermon on giving in secret. “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”
Matthew 6:2-4

The lesson I took away was that giving means more both to me and to God when it is done quietly and for it’s own sake. Which is what I try to do.

12 Bea { 09.17.11 at 10:05 am }

First of all. There is absolutely no problem with getting tax deductions when donating to a charity. You should, of course, use it as an opportunity to donate more to charity than you would otherwise be able to afford. In this way, you are simply redirecting your tax dollar – putting it in the hands of the charity of your choosing, rather than the government.

The other thing is, I think Peter Singer (The Life You Could Save) has a point in that when you tell everyone you do nice things, and loudly, it creates a culture of niceness and giving, more or less a peer pressure thing, which in the utilitarian worldview of Singer has to be an unqualified good. (I was raised on the ladder theory, so I still struggle with following through on this. I mean at the end of the day, good is still good, even if it isn’t pure of heart, anyway, right? But there is a bit more moral high-ground if not being rewarded. But then maybe the moral high-ground is its own reward. And if it’s going to prompt others to do good to tell them about what you’ve done, thereby creating more good, as Singer proves… maybe we have a duty to tell everyone when we do good, and maybe we should get over the squeamishness we feel on account of our upbringing and religious affiliations, which are pretty selfish reasons to refuse to add more good to the world – even by telling people about the good we’ve done – as it turns out. Thoughts to muse on.)

Obviously, if the move causes more harm than good overall (changing perceptions for the worse etc) then it is more of a misdeed with a bit of a silver lining (the couple helped, for eg).

But on balance I am all for Robin Hood giving as long as the world is a better place afterwards overall. I think people can recognise a marketing gimmick when they see one, even a do-gooder gimmick, and some are definitely mostly gimmick and only a fraction do-good, and yes there is an element of using a cause for your own purposes, and I think that does take away from the moral highgroundedness, but then maybe it encourages other businesses to use the tactic and overall it leads to more money for more good causes, so I can’t really condemn it.

I’m not really a utilitarian. But I don’t think a reasonable person denies that the amount of good produced is a morally important part of the equation.


Although the “win a baby” slogan is still obnoxious.


13 Bea { 09.17.11 at 11:24 am }

Ok… Mr Bea has just said “the degree to which the deed is for someone else vs for you” which is, of course, what the ladder is all about and I guess it helps to put it in those words because where it fits with what I’m trying to say is that in certain cultures/religions (such as ours), being admired for your giving is overtaken by being shunned for your showing off. And given that you can help create a culture of giving by telling people that you gave, perhaps it’s actually LESS selfish in certain contexts to tell and risk being thought of as a show-off who only gives in order to tell everybody about it and also lose that special glow of having given in secret, than to keep it secret. Thus turning the ladder, effectively, upside down. Of course, if a lot of people start doing this, the ladder will go around again and… my head will start hurting. But you see what I mean. The ladder inverts itself.

“The ladder inverts itself”. Deep.


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