Academic journal article Journal of Pan African Studies

Refigu(red): Talking Africa and Aids in "Causumer" Culture

Academic journal article Journal of Pan African Studies

Refigu(red): Talking Africa and Aids in "Causumer" Culture

Article excerpt

Introduction

Bono and Bobby Shriver launched (Product)Red in 2006 with the goal of tapping large corporate brands and the millions of shoppers who buy their products to raise funds for the treatment of HIV/AIDS in Africa. I am chiefly concerned with the language and images employed by the (RED) brand as well as the responses, both in support and not, it evokes in consumers. As such, this paper turns an eye toward the brand itself and the particular consumerism it enables--what I term "causumerism," as (RED) is representing the humanitarian cause of treating AIDS patients in Africa and consumers are making purchases as a means of supporting that cause. I distinguish this from the broader scope of consumerism, as this paper does not discuss the wide and varied range of consumer actions and impetuses. Additionally, it is important to note that this paper does not provide any substantial examination of the "receiving" side of the (RED) initiative or attempt to analyze the practical effects of the campaign in Africa. Rather, the discussion that follows will examine the causumer culture surrounding (RED) and some of the different discourses invoked in this engagement with the topic of AIDS and Africa.

My research on (RED) is drawn from media and marketing materials inclusive of information accessed by visiting locations where (RED) products are sold in order to observe the brand in action. Specifically, I tracked the news of the brand, collected their advertisements, and sought out the products in stores. While sales people at the stores were generally eager to talk with me about (RED) products, I found few shoppers willing to engage in discussion. (ii) Past my initial discouragement, I realized that this lack of engagement is perhaps indicative of (RED)'s form of "movement." While consumers may be buying the same products and share the same concern for AIDS treatment in Africa, they are not connecting with one another face-to-face or engaging in much conversation about their causumerism. Where these consumers are interacting, however, is online through the joinred.com website and in groups on networking sites like MySpace and Facebook. Consequently, I joined these groups to see what consumers are saying about (RED), in addition to what (RED) is saying about itself. Viewed with a critical lens, these materials acted as my entry into the workings of the (RED) brand and its reception by consumers.

The discourses around (RED) involve political activism, community, and transparency, all evoked in the realm of the corporate brand.iii While many shoppers buy into this rhetoric and feel justified in their (RED) purchases, the brand is also met with skepticism and distrust. This uneasiness, I believe, comes from a question of legitimacy. Does the (RED) brand have the authority to represent these ideas of activism, community, and transparency in talking about AIDS patients in Africa? Put another way, how is (RED)'s engagement with these discourses legitimated, and in what ways does this legitimacy fail? Referencing Max Weber's definition of authority as forms of domination that are considered legitimate by followers or subordinates,iv we can consider the brand's claims in representing both the cause of treatment for AIDS patients in Africa and the social awareness of consumers. In framing the brand in the image of a social movement, (RED) creates a narrative of social relations which becomes real to some but remains divorced from reality to others.

To begin with, (RED) derives its authority from consumer participation.v That is, people buy into the brand by choice, and in that choice they affirm the goals of the consumer-based initiative. Furthermore, one could argue that the ends justify the means, as the cause of treating AIDS patients in Africa is the underlying claim of authenticity for its humanitarian motivation. At the international level, the brand is largely met with praise, and ushered into the aid spotlight alongside major philanthropic and government efforts. …

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