RED: Save Dying Africans by Consuming More Useless Crap

How (RED) Works. Warning: Surreal

I’ve recently become aware of one of the most bizarre health initiatives I’ve ever seen. Product (RED), a brain child of U2 frontman, Bono, seeks to raise money to fight HIV/AIDS in Africa by encouraging the sale of expensive and fashionable consumer goods. I don’t watch television, nor read fashion magazines, so I’m often behind on these things. I do, however, read books, such as that which I’ve been reading recently, “Brand Aid: Shopping Well to Save the World” by Richey and Ponte.

The (RED) website explains their goals:

“(RED) is a simple idea that transforms our incredible collective power as consumers into a financial force to help others in need.

(RED) works with the world’s most iconic brands – including American Express, Apple, Bugaboo, Dell, Emporio Armani, Gap, Hallmark, Nike, Penfolds, Penguin and Starbucks – to make unique (PRODUCT) RED items, giving up to 50 percent of their profits to the Global Fund to invest in HIV and AIDS programs. Every dollar goes straight to people who need it, helping them stay alive so that they can go on taking care of their families and contributing to their communities.

Since it’s launch in 2006, (RED) has generated over $170 million for the Global Fund and over 7.5 million people have been impacted by HIV and AIDS programs supported by you (RED) purchases.

Buy (RED), save lives. It’s as simple as that.”

Free marketing rightists will rejoice, considering this a market based solution to the vast problems and criticisms of development aid. Proponents argue that (RED) is a simple consumer based effort that relies on the good will and charity of happy (and often liberal) shoppers on the prowl for Armani shoes, Starbucks coffee and (RED) themed iPods, all paid for with signature (RED) American Express cards.

In the development aid world, though, $170 million dollars is a pittance. To date, the Global Fund has disbursed more than 14 billion dollars, the largest recipients of which included the emerging economies of China and India. To put this in perspective, Dell, a (RED) participant, claimed sales of more than $15 billion, just last year. $170 million dollars is probably less than the coffee fund of Dell.

The trouble, of course, is that fashions come and go, and (RED) is only as successful as long as the fashion lasts. I shudder to think that people dying in the open of full blown AIDS have to rely on the charity and goodwill of credit card wielding teenagers.

(RED) is no clearly no charity, but rather a clever marketing ploy being appropriated by some of the largest corporate entities in the world. It is doubtful that these entities, who work day and night concocting new and innovative ways of reducing (and ultimately eliminating) corporate taxation could have any credible level of social commitment. Rather (RED) is a nuanced way of manipulating the heartstrings of “concerned” consumers and thereby maximizing profits.

Money raised through the sale of (RED) products is contributed to the Global Fund, an organization not without its controversies and criticisms, one of which is the phenomena of “governance at a distance,” or the intentional manipulation of developing world governments to satisfy the aims of contributor countries, which, unsurprisingly, are the massive economies of the G8. The level and amount each company contributes to (RED) varies. There is no set percentage or method of giving. Not surprisingly, there is also little transparency.

To add insult to injury, (RED)’s focus is on purchasing pharmaceuticals for AIDS patients, leading one to wonder how much connection the landscape of stock profiles in companies which produce consumer goods cross over into those of big pharma companies.

Certainly, there is a urgent need to provide financial assistance to ameliorate health problems worldwide. The crass marketing of “African” suffering (where is Latin America in this? Southeast Asia? Afghanistan??) as a means of selling useless consumer goods is, however, beyond the pale of insulting. This phenomena, though, in a new world that replaces the old deities with the Gods of Corporate Greed is hardly unusual.

Update: We got added to the Brand Aid Blog, where you can find more information about the book.

Richey LA, Ponte S: Brand aid: shopping well to save the world. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press; 2011.

About Pete Larson

Researcher at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research. Lecturer in the University of Michigan School of Public Health and at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. I do epidemiology, public health, GIS, health disparities and environmental justice. I also do music and weird stuff.

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