Shoppers of the World Unite: (RED)'s Messaging and Morality in the Fight against African AIDS

Article excerpt

Introduction

A philanthropic trend has emerged in which companies encourage people to buy products, promising to give a percentage of the profits to charities. Such "embedded giving" (Strom 2007) or "cause marketing" (Stole 2008) promotes consumerism, tying buying to benevolence. (Product)RED (hereafter (RED)) (1) is a fine example of this phenomenon. (RED) encourages people to purchase products that fund AIDS work in Africa. (RED) is a unique business model that uses cultural schemas and categories to link capitalism to a humanitarian effort, constructing it as a moral issue. (RED) is not simply advocating the purchase of products, it is also attempting to persuade us,2 as consumers, that we have the opportunity to save Africa without ever leaving the comfort of our homes or malls, without doing anything but shop. Because it gives such a simple solution, (RED) tries to convince us that not only do we have the opportunity to change the world, we also have an obligation to do so.

Using a constructivist perspective, I explore (RED)'s messaging, examining the ways in which (RED) is creating a moral imperative and firmly entrenching it in consumer culture. This paper is by no means a definitive study of (RED) or its outcomes. Rather, it is an exploratory paper, considering multiple issues related to the organization and its ties to Africa. I hope to demonstrate that (RED) uses previously existing social categories and tropes to convey its purpose and to show that people do internalize (RED)'s information. I seek to connect its message and outcomes with larger theoretical questions and social issues. By performing a content analysis of (RED)'s website, I will show how it creates its cause. Furthermore, by examining consumer responses to (RED) on its MySpace page, I will explore how its message has affected consumers and how they have interpreted (RED)'s purpose.

What is Product (RED)?

Walk into, or past, any Gap Store (3) and large displays or posters advertise (RED). Musicians Wyclef Jean, Natalie Maines, and Mary J. Blige, actors Abigail Breslin, Terrence Howard, and Penelope Cruz, and model Christy Turlington are just some of the celebrities, photographed by the famed Annie Liebowitz, lending their faces to (RED) advertising. The white parenthesized letters on the red background pop up in magazines and newspapers around the world. The (RED) media blitz is huge, and its message seems obvious: all these celebrities are wearing/buying (RED), so should you. But the ads give little indication of what (RED) actually is.

Co-founded by Bobby Shriver and U2 singer Bono, (RED) has brought together numerous corporations and is a marvel of creative marketing. (RED) is a brand-on-brand strategy: by charging a licensing fee, (RED) has enabled The Gap, Emporio Armani, Converse, Motorola, American Express, Hallmark, and Apple to use the (RED) brand on selections of their (already branded) products, of which a certain percentage of the cost (from five to fifty percent) is used for AIDS work in Africa.

Money raised through the sale of (RED) items is sent to the Global Fund to provide antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) for Africans suffering from AIDS. Prohibitive prices have prevented most Africans from accessing ARVs, which are common in western countries.

While anti-AIDS organizations have been able to acquire some public sector funds, it has been more difficult to obtain private sector funding; (RED) seeks to change that. The companies actively create and market their (RED) products, folks buy them, and the companies send a stated percentage to the Global Fund which, in turn, sends money to organizations that meet its strict funding criteria. "A percentage of each (PRODUCT)RED product sold is given to The Global Fund. The money helps women and children affected by HIV/AIDS in Africa"4. If African organizations fail to meet the Global Fund's requirements, they do not receive further funding and may, in fact, have to pay back part of what they were given (5). …