As the New York Times reports, this holiday season many merchants are using real charity as advertising. Nike, The Gap, Disney, and others are mixing philanthropy with product, doing things like selling bracelets whose profits go to cancer research, or plush toys whose profits go towards children's medical research. One New York housewares store is even selling water buffalo in Cambodia -- you pay here to donate one to a village there. The NYT quotes the president of a marketing consulting firm, who says "Such retail-hosted charitable events and promotions have at least tripled since 2000...and have clearly accelerated in the past year."
Even if this is happening for purely cynical commercial reasons, it's impressive that so many companies feel this is an effective way to reach consumers. It means consumers are starting to care. Time will tell if this is a passing fad or a real second-superpower trend.
Advertising is over 2% of GNP in the U.S. (though many industries have advertising-to-sales ratios that are far higher, up to at least 20%). The more of this that can be diverted to positive-sum productive uses, the better.
Currently, there's an arms race where those who want your money fight with each other to sway you with their own particular siren call. Why not have them fight to impress you most with their social responsibility? Or with the services they provide? (Google!)
Of course, companies will only do this if consumers are more impressed by content than by siren calls. Sounds a lot like politics, doesn't it...