Debating whether consumer activism makes a difference
By Abby Sophir
What do Gap clothing, Dell computers and Converse shoes have in common? That’s right: red.
These companies are working with Project (RED), a campaign to eliminate AIDS in Africa, to produce Project (RED) branded products. For each item purchased, up to 50 percent of the profit goes toward HIV and AIDS programs in Africa.
Gap, Dell and Converse are not alone. Other iconic brands, including American Express, Apple, Armani, Hallmark and Nike, are manufacturing (RED) products as well.
The (RED) campaign was started in March 2006 by U2’s Bono and Bobby Shriver with the intent to engage the private sector in raising awareness and funds for a humanitarian cause.
This concept is part of a new advertising era of cause-related marketing. This promotion method frequently uses colors to advocate a cause and sell merchandise. For example, pink is used for breast cancer awareness.
“I think it’s terribly effective, pink in particular,” Thomas Bohn, lecturer and former dean of the Park School of Communications, said. “It’s incredible in the sense that it’s being used and worn universally, You’re sitting there watching a pro football game, and you see pink cleats. Your mind automatically goes to the breast cancer cause and concept.”
Is this an effective marketing technique? No doubt. According to the official (RED) website, “To date, (RED) partners and events have contributed more than $150 million to the Global Fund to fight AIDS in Africa.” Throughout the years, the pink initiative has grown to cover more than 30 countries, spanning five continents. According to ABC News, the Susan G. Komen for the Cure organization brings in $50 million annually from its pink ribbon campaigns. It’s hard to argue with those statistics.
But despite the huge financial successes of these marketing techniques, many questions arise about the morality and legitimacy of the efforts.
Some claim that the (RED) campaign’s use of AIDS as a marketing tool is unethical. Should Nike be benefiting from the fact that more than 20 million people in Sub-Sahara, Africa have HIV?
This leads to another question: Is the use of consumerism to aid a region that suffers from the detrimental effects of that same capitalistic system incongruous?
An opposition website, Buylesscrap.org was launched to combat this idea with the tagline, “Shopping is not a solution. Buy (LESS). Give more.”
Buy (LESS) mocks the (RED) campaign, rejecting the idea that shopping is a reasonable response to human suffering and encouraging people to donate directly to The Global Fund and other charities rather than engaging in “causumerism.” The website’s mission is “to remind them that this is the most efficient way to support a cause and to inspire less consumerism overall.”
As these color campaigns gain momentum, the line between a casual clothing selection and a purposeful message begins to blur. A thoughtless choice to put on a purple shirt may turn into a protest against anti-gay bullying, homelessness and religious intolerance.
The ABC News article “Breast Cancer ‘Pink Cause’ Has Some Women Weary” reports on skepticism of the pink campaign’s success.
Samantha King, author of “Pink Ribbons Inc.” and an associate professor at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, claims that “the marketing of breast cancer has gone too far.”
Her book examines the psychological effect of seeing cancer reminders everywhere when you’re fighting the disease and outlines the often-ambiguous exchange of funds between pink products and philanthropic organizations. The pink campaign itself recommends that consumers question the legitimacy of a particular program and benefactor before purchasing a ribbon-linked product.
Although cause-related marketing, like anything else, has its opposition, the ends outweigh the means. The (RED) campaign is the perfect example.
The campaign allows people who may otherwise not donate money to support a charitable organization without going out of their way. It exposes audiences to the AIDS epidemic and takes advantage of the immense marketing power of companies such as Apple and Nike. While these private companies benefit from sales, so do nonprofits. Although cause-related marketing is not “the” solution, it is certainly a place to start.
I am sure the 145,000 HIV positive people who have received antiretroviral treatment in Ghana, Lesotho, Rwanda, South Africa, Swaziland and Zambia from funds raised by the (RED) campaign might not object to this marketing strategy.
Abby Sophir is a freshman TVR major who justified getting a new Project (RED) iPod because she’s saving lives—right? E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.