Shoppers of the World Unite: (RED)'s Messaging and Morality in the Fight against African AIDS
Anderson, Norma, Journal of Pan African Studies
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).
The main idea behind (RED) is that people are going to buy products and companies are going to spend money marketing products. Therefore, spending money on marketing, or purchasing specific products that can actually do some good, makes good, kind sense. Bono, in a note on (RED)'s website, wrote, "(RED) is the consumer battalion gathering in the shopping malls. You buy the jeans, phones, iPods, shoes, sunglasses, and someone--somebody's mother, father, daughter or son--will live instead of dying in the poorest part of the world. It's a different kind of fashion statement."(6) According to the (RED) website, approximately $25 million were raised its first year and given to the Global Fund, while between $30 and $40 million were spent by companies on their marketing campaigns. Because the money is targeted for African AIDS programs, (RED) claims to be making a big difference, and it may indeed be a brilliant marriage of marketing and philanthropy. According to the website, (RED) funds have provided ARVs to thirty-one thousand people in Rwanda and Swaziland. They have also been used to build testing centers, start education campaigns related to HIV/AIDS prevention, train counselors and health workers, and establish several school feeding programs for children with AIDS in Swaziland (7).
I argue that (RED)'s message is embraced easily because it draws upon socially constructed categories of Africa, African AIDS, and philanthropy with which most westerners are familiar and because its consumerist message means cool stuff for shoppers and better brand awareness and profits for its companies. (RED) uses socially constructed ideas and understandings of these concepts, but also helps to bring visibility to the issues, simultaneously causing our interpretations of the problems to become more fully entrenched. (RED) can be successful only insofar as people purchase its products. Therefore, there must be a significant incentive for them to do so. This paper emphasizes how (RED)'s messages use previously internalized social categories to set up a framework in which many people find it simple and "morally right" to "act" on the issue. Jeffrey Alexander (8) argues that particular cultural traumas may be transformed into moral universals that function as an analogy of the suffering of a variety of religious, ethnic, and minority groups around the world.
I believe that (RED), in its advertising and self-promotion, is trying to create a moral imperative, in which we feel compelled to help. Though we already have a variety of categories and social schema into which Africa and the problem of AIDS fit quite nicely, (RED) must not draw only upon these categories, but also make us realize that we must do something about the problem and that (RED) is the solution. Bono, in a letter on (RED)'s website, calls AIDS in Africa "the greatest health crisis in human history" (9), but one that can be fixed by purchasing (RED) products.
Creating a moral imperative, or making use of one, with relation to philanthropy is not an unusual idea. Tracing the construction of the concept of charity throughout the 1900s, Dorileen Loseke (10) argues that though historical situations change over time, charity is a powerful model because there are multiple moralities embedded within it, allowing for different emphases at different times, thus the ability to withstand changes in public sentiment. "Charity becomes a sacred morality of religion, an all but sacred morality of democratic community, an economic morality of capitalism, a human morality of compassion for others" (11). In the United States, and in some parts of Western Europe, neo-liberalism has become a part of dominant political ideology, with governments scaling back social welfare programs and shifting the burden of assistance to private charitable organizations, reinforcing a culture of individual responsibility (12). Interestingly, (RED) was launched first in the UK, then in the US, both of which experienced neoliberal turns. Comparing French and North American workers, Michele Lamont (13) found Americans more likely to view volunteerism and philanthropy through a moralistic frame. Exploring the social construction of emotions, Markus and Kitayama (14) suggest that ignoring such notions of morality with regard to helping others when we have the opportunity to make things right could negatively impact our own feelings. Because (RED)'s goal is raising money for African AIDS work, it must tap into our emotions and our sense of morality. It must make us want to help, want to buy products to support its work. Other than references to saving lives in Africa, (RED)'s website devotes little space to actual facts about AIDS or Africa. Yet, (RED)'s focus is to bring attention to the fight against AIDS in Africa and rouse individual and business participation in improving the lives of millions of people who suffer from the condition on the continent. I argue that (RED) need not spend much time educating or informing consumers about Africa or AIDS in Africa because western consumers already have deeply embedded "knowledge" about the continent.
Our understandings of Africa and African AIDS are socially constructed; they have become part of our taken-for-granted daily lives (15), formed from …
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Publication information: Article title: Shoppers of the World Unite: (RED)'s Messaging and Morality in the Fight against African AIDS. Contributors: Anderson, Norma - Author. Journal title: Journal of Pan African Studies. Volume: 2. Issue: 6 Publication date: September 2008. Page number: 32+. © 2008 Journal of Pan African Studies. COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale Group.
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