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Chili's autism misstep and the downside of sloppy philanthropy

[This post has been updated, as explained below.]

If you believe that a great deal of corporate charity is only for show, not about serious concern for the beneficiaries of philanthropy, the restaurant chain Chili's has just provided a data point to support your view. (It's a view we share.)

Chili's announced Monday that it canceled a nationwide "Give Back Event" on behalf of the National Autism Assn., a group that promotes the wholly discredited and disreputable idea that child vaccinations are an important cause of autism.

The event would have funneled 10% of today's "qualified" sales at lunch or dinner at more than 1,200 Chili's restaurants to the group. According to a statement issued by the chain, the event was canceled as a result of "the feedback we heard from our guests." That feedback included a surfeit of negative comments on the Chili's Facebook page, on other social media and in the press

Chili's, a unit of Dallas-based Brinker International, plainly thought that piggybacking on April's designation as Autism Awareness Month was a no-lose proposition (who could be in favor of autism?). But its marketing scheme falls less into the category of "what were they thinking?" than "were they thinking anything at all?"

Autism is a terrible condition for its sufferers and their families, but it has been heavily politicized by a vocal anti-science cadre. This wing simply ignores the immense weight of evidence that there is no link between vaccinations and autism, and that the research showing such a link was the product of outright fraud.

The National Autism Assn. promotes that nonexistent linkage. Its "Causes of Autism" Web page states its belief that "vaccines can trigger or exacerbate autism in some, if not many, children." It adds, "though published mainstream science fails to acknowledge a causal link" to vaccines and other "environmental" causes, "it’s important that parental accounts be carefully considered."

It's impossible to understate how destructive this approach is to the health of children. As we've reported, anti-vaccine sophistry has contributed mightily to new outbreaks of measles in California and the East Coast. Chili's blindly walked into this same quicksand.

That brings us back to the broader topic of corporate charity drives. "Cause-related marketing" -- the term should give you a clue to what it's really all about -- has become an inescapable part of the marketing and ad campaigns of countless consumer businesses. An essential factor in these campaigns is that the consumer "participate" by making a purchase, a portion of which is paid over to the chosen charity.

Philanthropy experts are troubled by these campaigns. For one thing, the best-marketed charities, not necessarily the most deserving, garner the most attention. Another drawback is that when customers' donations are made automatically at the cash register, they don't do much, or anything, to examine the charity they're helping. Why should they? They're not actually paying for the donation.

The Chili's case shows the other side of that coin: The merchants don't feel much need to scrutinize those charities either. Chili's may merely have thought, "Autism Awareness Month = marketing opportunity." There's no evidence that its executives bothered to educate themselves about autism itself, though the chain said its intent was "not to express a view on the medical or scientific positions related to autism, but rather to support the families affected by autism." (We assumed they didn't really intend to fund vaccine deniers.)

We won't even mention that Chili's took a rather cheeseparing approach to its campaign -- only purchases by customers who brought in a flier announcing the event or mentioned the campaign qualified for the 10% donation. That surely limited the chain's philanthropic bill. 

Consumers should always be wary of corporate marketing schemes wearing the sheep's clothing of "charity." They're not the way to heaven, and as Chili's misadventure shows, they may be the way to somewhere else entirely.

UPDATE: I have been taken to task, properly, for referring to autism above as "a terrible condition for its sufferers and their families." That's a narrow and ill-informed way of looking at a condition that many people on the autism spectrum feel has benefited their lives. "I'm a good reporter because I have incredible focus," says Mike Elk, the superb labor reporter for In These Times, who identifies himself as having Asperger's syndrome and appreciates the diversity of those in the autistic spectrum. Those seeking to know more should turn to the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, whose president, Ari Ne'eman, serves on President Obama's National Council on Disability.

Reach me at @hiltzikm on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ or by email. MORE FROM MICHAEL HILTZIK

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