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January 31, 2007

Article Autopsy: EPA Approves 'Cause Marketing'

Once in a while we have to "kill" a story that one of our dedicated reporters, and often an editor or two, has devoted serious work to. For one reason or another, the piece doesn’t work out. Usually it’s because we can’t get the sourcing or verification needed to meet our extremely high vetting standards. Sometimes a story just doesn’t prove itself, even when the reporter does everything right.

One such case is a short article we assigned to freelance contributor Julie Sabatier. Our assignment committee wasn’t thrilled about the story, but no one was covering it and for some reason it caught our attention, so we passed it to Julie who made some calls and wrote up a nice little narrative with fine sourcing.

I’m pasting a near-finished version here, because we want Julie’s and our work to be exposed and we really want your feedback, but we don’t think this is quite TNS material, for reasons I’ll explain below.

EPA Approves Cause Marketing on Safety Labels

By Julie Sabatier

The US Environmental Protection Agency plans to allow commercial manufacturers of bleach, pesticides and other toxic substances to display promotions for causes and charities on their products’ safety labels.

The government watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) criticized the emerging policy, saying the so-called "cause marketing" will take up important label space traditionally reserved for safety information.

"The label is already crowded, and most of the safety information is in fine print, and one of the concerns we’ve raised is that these slogans and symbols just distract consumer attention away from the important information about safe and proper use of the product," PEER executive director Jeff Ruch told The NewStandard.

The EPA is required by law to regulate the information printed on labels for registered pesticides, poisons, fungicides and anti-microbial agents. The policy change came in response to a request from the Clorox Company. Clorox wants to advertise its pledge to donate a small percentage of its revenue from bleach sales to the Red Cross.

EPA guidelines emphasize safety and usage information on labels and discourage any "symbols implying safety or non-toxicity, such as a Red Cross or a medical seal of approval."

But the EPA will now allow Clorox to put the Red Cross logo on bottles of its chlorine bleach, which is poisonous.

Asked about the apparent contradiction with EPA policy, Enesta Jones of the Agency’s press office told TNS: "We made this decision after carefully reviewing the results of a [Clorox]-sponsored consumer survey which reported that the charitable donation elements of the product label was neither misleading nor did it imply safety. In fact, the labeling still provides consumers with the information they need to use the products safely. EPA did not make an exception, nor is it compromising consumer safety."

Yet the EPA initially denied the request, agreeing to change the policy only after a second meeting with Clorox representatives in July.

Kristine Templin, director of corporate partnerships and cause marketing for the American Red Cross, said the charity welcomes EPA’s policy change. "Bleach is a tool used in disaster response and recovery, so a visible partnership with Clorox is an organic extension of our work," Templin said. "Inclusion of Red Cross information on Clorox bleach products has created a unique opportunity to educate the public."

Simple enough, but maybe you can see why were weren’t bowled over by this. Sometimes when you hear just one side of a story, especially when presented by a public-interest group, the narrative carries an appeal that later proves unwarranted. I said this is "near final" because, in truth, we stopped editing it when we realized that our last round of skeptical vetting would have wittled PEER's claims pretty much out of the article.

As much as there is no love lost between The NewStandard and the EPA, let alone Clorox Co., we really couldn’t see the substance behind PEER’s complaint. A look at Clorox labels made us uncertain that the red cross would cause any problem at all. Then, after Julie got the Red Cross’s response, we suspected there wasn’t much left to the conflict.

Sure, we’re aware the Red Cross may be more interested in raising funds than protecting the public. But it seems that since bleach is used as a medical disinfectant, and since it’s unlikely someone will drink a cup of Clorox to cure something, we thought it important not to dilute TNS’s coverage of true public-interest crises and conundrums with something like this.

But we’d love to hear what readers think about our decision. (And, yes, Julie still gets full payment for the story.)


Mary Mele: worth covering

Small but a useful warning of a trend. I appreciated reading it.

Benjamin Melançon: 'Trend' is the issue

The first poster hits it: this is significant as an indicator of a trend.

Advertisers are moving into movies, television programs, games, other products, and, of course, bathroom stalls.

What exactly does a Red Cross label mean when it's for sale? Is the financial relationship going to be disclosed on the bottle? (Given American Red Cross performance post-Sept. 11 and post-Katrina, it's possible they're paying to be associated with Clorox.)

The NewStandard itself, of course, stands as a definitive example of avoiding these questions of compromised integrity.

But in the absence of the resources to put it in such a wider context, which now I'm not sure would be a good idea anyway-- putting it as a blog post is important. It gets it on the Internet, and gives people who want to reference it a place to do so.

But you could also have somewhere to put something you've reported on that meets all your hard-news journalistic criteria-- except not being particularly important!

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.