As a kid growing up in the 60’s, Jerry Lewis and the MDA telethon were synonymous with Labor Day. Every television set was tuned to the “Love Network” – Jerry’s name for TV stations across the country that aired Muscular Dystrophy Association’s 21 hour extravaganza. I marveled at the amazing talent ranging from singers to comedians to magicians and more (remember, back then we only had 3 stations!). I loved the local segments with names of donors scrolling across the screen while dozens of volunteer operators took live donation calls. I cried and cheered when Jerry interviewed his kids and brought their stories to the world. And, yes, even as a little girl, I loved the big corporate donations from iconic brands like 7-Eleven and others who sold slurpees or sold shamrocks to raise money for Jerry’s kids. Those gigantic checks with all the 000’s were hard to imagine – with each company check surpassing the previous one. Oh, how those neon-lighted numbers got bigger and bigger and…poof, sparks flying…BIGGER. In fact, over his 45 year reign, Jerry helped to raise over 2.6B (yes Billion) for his kids. That’s a lot of neon light bulbs!
As sad as it is to see Jerry’s era come to a close, I want to give Kudos to MDA for moving their strategies forward in new and culturally-relevant ways. I’m sad to see some of the negative press surrounding Jerry’s departure and hope any of those cuts and scratches will heal soon. But the good news is that the re-vamped 2011 version of MDA’s telethon was a success by many measures. The new show time – 6 hours vs. the previous 21 – is more realistic for today’s thousands-of-channels television culture. More than $61.5 million was raised, which is $2.6 million more than last year’s total. Many critics panned the choice of reality TV stars to host the 2011 event. But really, aren’t those stars of today similar to the stature Jerry enjoyed back in 1966 when he first hosted? And, in other efforts to modernize the telethon, there were plenty of social media integrations from a Facebook page featuring backstage video interviews with celebrities to live tweets and online posts. With the new 6 hour prime-time format, there was no shortage of talent in this year’s show with the likes of Celine Dion, Jennifer Lopez, Lady Antebellum, Darrius Rucker, Richie Sambora, Jordin Sparks and more. And, last, but certainly not least in this cause marketer’s heart, the corporate support was alive and well. Participating brands included Bally Total Fitness, Burger King, Clear Channel Radio, Dr Pepper Snapple Group/Seven Up, Harley-Davidson Motor Co., Jiffy Lube, Lowe’s Home Improvement, and of course – my childhood favorite – the National Coalition of Associations of 7-Eleven Franchises. And many many more.
Many say that the “birth of cause marketing” happened when American Express raised money to refurbish Lady Liberty. While I love that campaign too, I personally believe cause marketing was born in the 1960’s when Jerry recruited corporate sponsors to raise money for his kids. So, thanks to you Jerry for all you have done for the kids, for MDA and for little budding cause marketers like me. I think I’ll go get a slurpee.