Marketing a social conscience

Excalibur, York University's Paper, 2006

Empowe(red) campaign image: "Can a tank top change the world? This one can. All Gap Product (RED) clothing is designed to help eliminate AIDS in Africa."

The (RED) campaign raises questions about using affluence to support AIDS awareness

Apparently, red sweaters, iPods and cell phones can save the world. 

In a world where Africa is the hottest topic amongst celebrities, it’s no wonder that Bono of U2 recently launched a campaign with philanthropist Bobby Shriver titled the (RED) campaign. The campaign pulls Western consumers into buying products with a (RED) trademark, such as iPods, Gap sweaters, Motorola cell phones, Converse sneakers and Giorgio Armani watches. A portion of the profits - at most 50% - go to the Global Fund, an organization which funds treatment of AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis.

The fund purchases expensive antiretroviral medications from pharmaceutical companies used for treatment, especially in Africa where 60% of the population of 40 million people dies from AIDS, most of them women and children. 

In theory, the campaign sounds nice. We can afford to buy iPods and designer sweaters, and we’ll buy them anyway, so why not? 

“The products are sexy, and people live instead of die. It’s consumer power at work for those who have no power at all,” Bono said in a (RED) press release on October 13. 

The reality is that (RED) uses wise marketing tactics that legitimize this “conscious consumption.” Helping “underdeveloped” Africa should be important to all of us, but you can’t buy and sell social change. Non-governmental organizations can’t even do that. 

There is evidence of the fund’s success according to In May 2006, $1.25 million of (RED)’s first profits flowed to Rwanda for treatment, care and prevention, thus increasing the number of people receiving HIV/AIDS treatment ten-fold. With (RED), this initiative has become a strong source of income for the fund.

On the North American launch date of (RED), 300,000 people signed up for (RED) e-mail updates an hour after watching Oprah Winfrey’s episode on AIDS. Oprah’s exhibition of the “INSPI(RED)” t-shirt subsequently has become one of the best selling items in Gap history, where 50% of t-shirt profits go to the fund.

Bono emphasizes that this isn’t a charity; it’s a commercial initiative to engage the private sector to prove something “ethical” for once. Private companies get their profit, and the Global Fund gets their profit: a win-win situation, right?

The website even hosts its own manifesto, which gives off the impression of (RED) as a revolutionary idea. And frankly, buying “sexy” products is the last revolutionary thing you can do.

Karina Andrade, a second-year international development and Latin American and Caribbean studies student, finds irony in Gap’s participation in (RED). 

“Sweatshops manufacture [Gap’s] clothing, and now a portion of those clothes are given to an AIDS campaign. It doesn’t make sense to me,” she says.

Stop and think. How much more do we have to buy until all of the lives of Africans can be “saved”? Chiara Camponeschi, major of political science and communications and president of the Student Association for Intercultural Dialogue, notes that AIDS is highly commodified and ornamentalized by (RED). 

“The discourse and the political issues connected to AIDS are being simplified to the level that they become very superficial”, she says. “It propagates the philosophy of entertainment”.

Camponeschi argues against the campaign, saying that it is a convenient and passive form of material gratification that requires little knowledge about AIDS. 

“People are increasingly busier and detached from civil or societal reality,” she says. AIDS isn’t going to “drop” the more you shop, although your guilt might. Sustainable change requires more than spending disposable income on brand name products.

“To help Africa means that we should ask ourselves how our lifestyles are impacting third-world citizens”, Camponeschi says. 

Fahim Quadir, director of the graduate program in international development studies, views (RED) as a band-aid solution. Instead of dismissing the campaign, though, Quadir sees it as “a need for people in the West to pay some attention to what’s happening outside of their geographical boundaries. That, in itself, is a sort of development”, he said. 

“It’s going to take a long time before we see any changes in the way that development is understood or delivered.”

Given that (RED) is a five-year initiative, the campaign seems like an advertising campaign instead of a sustainable economic initiative. Community success in small pockets, as seen in Rwanda, is more likely. 

The celebrity has become the new medium for transporting ideas and beliefs about the third world. Africa’s dependency on the West is constantly shown in the media, while integral issues involving equal opportunities for trade and colonial history are marginalized. Our spending habits, Bono, Madonna and other potential publicity stunts cannot change the political aspects of decreasing debt relief or sending aid.

The age of wearing a ribbon for support or donating a cheque is disappearing. Volunteering with a non-governmental organization abroad is one way to understand issues such as AIDS. Instead of spending paychecks on overpriced merchandise, save up to volunteer with NGOs such as Youth Challenge International, Oxfam, or 

It seems that Tyler Durden of Fight Club was wrong: You are your fucking khakis. And these khakis are giving thousands of consumers the illusion that they can save an entire continent.