Whether promoting new bling or a non-profit charity, advertisers want us to ante up. To create effective ads for a given product, marketers devise “targeted” strategies aimed at specific audiences, which means they need to understand who responds to which promotions. So, how do people who believe in karma react when confronted with a charitable appeal?

Despite trusting that they will be rewarded for good deeds, karma devotees may not react in a favorable way when incentives are added to charitable donation ads, a new study suggests. Katina Kulow, University of Louisville, and Thomas Kramer, UC Riverside, say marketers need to consider customers’ karmic beliefs before creating charity ads.

Popular Culture Karma

There’s Buddhism karma and then there’s hippy karma.

A fundamental doctrine of Buddhism and Hinduism, karma refers to the spiritual principle of cause and effect, where past and present actions lead to the present reality. When you add this to a belief in reincarnation, the causes of all current visible effects are not linked to just this present life, true believers say; causes may be traced as far back as some remote past life. Still, good intent and good deeds in any life contribute to good karma and future happiness, while bad intent and bad deeds contribute to bad karma and future suffering.

However, as science fiction author Vera Nazarian explains, karma is not the “inviolate engine of cosmic punishment” as pop culture (hippies) would have it, but a neutral sequence of acts, results, and consequences. If you fall into a well, for example, you are not a bad person who deserves to suffer — instead, you may be someone who took a wrong step, or someone whose poor circulation led to dizziness, or someone who forgot to wear your glasses. Misfortune does not necessarily indicate you’ve committed some past evil, it is simply the logical consequence of what has come before even if the chain of cause and effect goes way back into your personal past. As Kulow and Kramer put it, “karma itself does not reward or punish — it simply rebalances the universe’s energies that are created by individuals’ actions.”

Believing people “reap” what they “sow,” (which is also a tenet of Christianity) then, may not be a perfect articulation of the spiritual principle; however, it’s the code many Americans live by and refer to as “karma.” This definition resonates with many people, say Kulow and Kramer, but research into its systematic effects on consumer behavior remains limited. So they devised a series of experiments to better understand these effects.

Time and Money

In an experiment where participants viewed a charitable appeal from the Skin Cancer Foundation, those with weak karmic beliefs said they’d be more likely to volunteer their time when a tangible incentive (a free bottle of sunscreen) was present, while those with strong karmic beliefs were more likely to volunteer their time when incentives were absent.

Similar experiments followed, with participants asked to donate either time or money while a personal incentive was either attached or not. One experiment dangled before participants’ eyes an intangible benefit for helping researchers. A group of participants was told a cure might someday save their own lives with a simple tagline addition: “There is no better way to protect your future, so give to cancer research and save your life.” A second group of participants heard they might someday save “someone’s” life by donating, and here the tagline read: “There is no better way to help someone’s future, so give to cancer research and save someone’s life.”

Once again, believers in karma were more likely to volunteer time when presented with a charitable appeal highlighting intangible benefits to others.

However, when asked to donate money, there were no differences in responses among people who believed in karma and those who did not. The researchers say it could be argued that donating money does good and therefore should be rewarded with good karma.

“We speculate that money donations perhaps do not represent a personal, effortful sacrifice to the same degree that time donations do, which may be a necessary stipulation for the accrual of karmic rewards,” they concluded.

Source: Kulow K, Kramer T. In Pursuit of Good Karma: When Charitable Appeals to Do Right Go Wrong. Journal of Consumer Research. 2016.