July 21, 2008

My First Ambulate-For-a-Cause

Yesterday I participated in the San Francisco AIDS Walk with two Mozilla interns.

I’ve always been a bit puzzled by the concept of walks/runs-for-a-cause because at a surface level, the energy an individual spends running or walking doesn’t directly contribute to the actual cause they’re ambulating for. Ultimately, it seems like it’s a transaction for one’s time and energy in exchange for a cause’s publicity: rather than simply donating a few dollars to a cause, ambulating for the cause is indicative of the sacrifice of one’s time in the name of a cause (which can be more valuable than money, depending on the individual). On the micro level, this can result in additional revenue for the cause as friends and family of the individual pledge money in recognition of that sacrifice. On the macro level, the collective behavior of so many people doing this at once creates significant publicity for the cause, which raises awareness for it and consequently leads to more revenue.

It’s no surprise that corporations have an incentive to ride this wave by “donating” money and human resources in exchange for publicity and associating their brand with the cause in the minds of consumers. For the vast majority of companies that I don’t care about, I tend to perceive this as the coldly calculated move I just described it as: The Gap, Blockbuster, McDonald’s, Williams-Sonoma, Wachovia, and a number of other corporations helped sponsor the event, their employees wearing t-shirts saying things like “[Company Name] Cares!“. Such things elicited a gag response from me. I don’t think that this actually damaged my perception of the companies in question—their behavior is entirely rational and has good consequences—but it doesn’t particularly improve my perception of the companies, either. I’d like to say that this is because I only want to associate qualities like compassion and benevolence with actual human beings that I know personally and trust.

Things aren’t that simple, of course. Pixar was there, and I couldn’t help but cheer them on, as they’re one of the few corporations that I have a particularly positive impression of, and consequently mentally anthropomorphize into an awesome person rather than the usual faceless machination. My two companions were wearing Firefox swag and got a few cheers as well, which was nice.

Still, there was something odd about the whole event. Some American Idol people sang a song at the opening ceremony and some famous people emcee’d it as though they were hosting the Oscars, which added to the uneasy feeling that this was a publicity stunt rather than an authentic experience. In the end, I suppose it was a bit of both, but what made it really worthwhile was exploring Golden Gate Park and hanging out with my fellow Mozillians.

© Atul Varma 2020