The 12-metre-wide helium balloon sent by Tropicana lit up the sky above the winter-darkened town off Inuvik in the Arctic Circle.
AS A random act of kindness, it really was one to brighten the darkest of days.
The 3500 residents of Inuvik, a community north of the Arctic Circle that endures 31 straight days of darkness in winter, couldn’t believe their eyes when a 12-metre-wide helium balloon lit up the sky.
As a random act of marketing, it was genius. The balloon was sent to Inuvik by the Canadian division of orange juice brand Tropicana to promote its Brighter Mornings campaign. It worked. The Inuviks were happy and Tropicana enjoyed a rise in sales.
Such random acts of kindness, or RAKs, are increasingly being used by companies to boost profits and recruit customers.
But critics argue that the trend is cheapening the idea of practising spontaneous, selfless acts to help others, an idea that took off in 1993 when Chuck Wall, a professor at Bakersfield College in California, challenged his students to perform ‘‘a random act of senseless kindness’’ after hearing a radio report describing ‘‘another random act of senseless violence’’.
According to a recent TrendWatching.com report, ‘‘random acts of kindness’’ are seen as one of the most effective ways of connecting with potential customers, especially those who expect businesses to be socially, ethically and environmentally responsible.
TrendWatching.com says Oprah Winfrey is one of the pioneers of RAK and understands their power better than most. In two acts that ensured worldwide exposure for her brand, Oprah gave every member of her studio audience a Volkswagen Beetle last year, before she flew another 300 fans to Australia.
Melbourne ethicist Dr Leslie Cannold, however, said the use of RAK by corporations and celebrities like Oprah could be seen as a cynical exercise.
'’What an individual hopes to get out of offering a random act of kindness is just that good feeling you get when you do something nice for someone for no reason,’’ Dr Cannold said. ‘‘Companies exist for one reason and that is to make profits. What makes a moral act is the intention behind it.’’
Interflora, for example, monitors Twitter users in Britain and then sends bunches of flowers to people who need cheering up. The floristry giant isn’t doing it to better the world; it’s doing it to ingratiate itself to the recipient so they will tell their friends about how ‘‘kind’’ the company is.
'’Giving away something for nothing is a very old commercial ploy that works,’’ Dr Cannold said.
Tynte Flowers in Adelaide is following Interflora’s lead, monitoring Twitter and sending flowers to depressed people.
Getaway Marketing & Media in Melbourne has set up an RAK program as a way, it said, of helping those in need. The company asked clients to let them know of anyone who could use their help, and staff were encouraged to dedicate half a day every fortnight to help a charity or community group.
University of Melbourne marketing lecturer Brent Coker said he expected the idea to take off in Australia because consumers were jaded by traditional advertising.
'’These random acts of kindness make people feel that this company cares about me so I’m going to tell my friends,’’ he said. ‘‘That word of mouth is gold for these companies.’’
Victorian Employers Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s Lizzie Trethewey said random acts of kindness were a unique, often inexpensive way for businesses to increase their exposure to potential new customers.
Carl Holden, of the Australian Kindness Movement, supported the initiative, saying anything that made a person’s day better had to be a good thing.
'’In the worst case scenario if someone is feeling suicidal, imagine what a bunch of flowers could actually do to brighten your day.’’