(RED) Campaign – Distraction or Lifesaver?

Driving home today, I caught the tail end of a broadcast by radio talk show host Michael Medved in which he was discussing the (RED) campaign. In case you missed my post on this campaign when it was announced, here’s a recap based on information on their website. “(RED) was created by Bono and Bobby Shriver, Chairman of DATA to raise awareness and money for The Global Fund by teaming up with the world’s most iconic brands to produce (PRODUCT)RED branded products. A percentage of each (PRODUCT)RED product sold is given to The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. The money helps women and children affected by HIV/AIDS in Africa.” (RED) Products are sold by companies such as Motorola, American Express, the Gap, Apple and other fashionable brands.

Michael Medved’s point was that this type of cause marketing is not helpful in addressing issues like AIDS or poverty in a place like Africa because it serves as a distraction from the root causes for these problems — corrupt, repressive political systems that keep their citizens from joining the global economy. Instead of encouraging more rampant consumerism, he says, we should be working towards political solutions to bring the African countries out of poverty, which would also reduce the problem of AIDS. When the focus is moved to other approaches that don’t solve that basic problem, the world feels like it has done something and does not pursue the harder, but more effective, work of transforming Africa’s political and economic systems. At least, that’s what I’m extrapolating from the few minutes I heard of the show, so forgive me if I’ve misquoted him.

I think Medved definitely has a valid point. People in many of the African countries are living under thuggish dictators who want to keep their citizens poor and ignorant so that they can remain in power. And corruption is so widespread that the economy simply does not function — people cannot run businesses, travel or get health care without paying graft to officials at each layer of the bureaucracy (including the police). This absolutely must change before people in most African countries can improve their standard of living.

But does that mean that we can’t simultaneously attack the problem from several angles at the same time? Even though these companies are making a bundle from selling the (RED) products, they are also buying and distributing anti-retroviral medicine to people who would not be getting it otherwise. And if consumers would be purchasing products from the participating companies anyways, why not buy the version that will help to save a life?

Bono seems to understand this. Here’s what he says on the website:

Enter Product (RED). (RED) is a new idea we’re launching to work alongside the growing ONE Campaign to Make Poverty History. Over the past year, almost 2 million Americans have joined ONE, in churches and chatrooms… on soccer pitches and movie sets… at Nascar races and rock concerts. By 2008, we’re aiming to have 5 million members – that’s more than the National Rifle Association. Just think for a moment of what that kind of political firepower could achieve for the poorest of the poor…

Where ONE takes on the bigger, longer-term beast of changing policy and influencing government, (RED) is, I guess, about a more instant kind of gratification. If you buy a (RED) product from GAP, Motorola, Armani, Converse or Apple, they will give up to 50% of their profit to buy AIDS drugs for mothers and children in Africa. (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…

…There are though still 4.3 million Africans without drugs, which is why 100% of (RED) money is going directly to the Global Fund to support the work they are doing. (RED) uses the power in your pocket to keep people alive. ONE uses the power of your voice to create a more just world where people can earn their own way out of poverty. This means tackling more than AIDS. It means fighting corruption. Insisting on good governance. Getting kids in school. Changing trade rules. Getting businesses to invest in Africa. Ali and I started a company called Edun – a fashion line that makes clothes in Africa – because so many Africans we met said what they wanted more than anything was a job.

Seems to me that these campaigns work together. Hope they work.

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  1. Nicely balanced treatment of a difficult subject, Nedra. I agree with Michael’s perspective in theory. But at the same time, the (RED) campaign raises awareness of the problem and gives it a greater platform in a big way. I can’t say I embrace the hollow consumerism, but I do think that raising the profile of a difficult issue is the end result, along with a ton of branded product.

  2. Thanks, Ann. At least the (RED) campaign gives people something to do — it’s not just to raise awareness but also involves an action that can make a difference.

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