Academic journal article The Journal of Pan African Studies (Online)

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

Academic journal article The Journal of Pan African Studies (Online)

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

Article excerpt

Abstract

In this article I will consider "causumer" culture from an anthropological perspective in order to examine some of the discourses involved in the brand's engagement with the topic of treatment of HIV/AIDS patients in Africa. At the center of this discussion lies a question of authority: From where does the (RED) brand derive authority in representing ideas of transparency, political activism, and community when talking about AIDS in Africa? By facilitating a particular mode of political activism through consumer choice, (RED) emphasizes the empowerment of shoppers to make a statement with their purchases. Consumer identification with (RED), in turn, forms a brand community that lends feelings of collective action. Ultimately, however, the brand's mediation of the surrounding discourses intervenes in the consumers' agency and places a reductive lens on the topic of AIDS in Africa. Through language of transparency, political activism, and community, (RED) attempts to figure the brand in the image of a social movement and re-embed commodities in a social context. This social context, however, is formed by images of connectedness and activism, representations of homogenized groups of "first world consumers" and "African AIDS patients," and a particular notion of exchangeability of people and things.

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. …

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