There's a great article up at The Advertising Age about Bono's Red brand (if you're not a subscriber you can read it here at Punk Planet). You know the Red brand - the one that Oprah devoted an entire show to, which was basically her going around a shopping a lot. You can get a Red iPod or a Red Motorola phone or Red jeans at The Gap, and part of the profits go to the Global Fund to fight AIDS in Africa.
Well, AdAge did some investigative journalism and found a few key numbers. First, they estimate the whole campaign has spent about $100 million on advertising. It's hard to get an exact number, since some of the advertising, like Oprah's entire show on the brand or Chris Rock's plug for it at the Grammy's, can't be measured in dollars and cents, and therefore things like that weren't included in the number. Second, they found that the campaign has raised only about $25 million for the Global Fund (the link above will say $18 million, but Red recently got a new sponsor).
So what's the beef here? The advertising money was spent by the companies that carry things with the Red brand, and the $25 million is a significant plus for the Global Fund. But it does seem like this whole thing is a complicated way to get out of actually helping people. Consider that for a $250 Red iPod, only $10 goes to the Global Fund, according to the Apple website. When Oprah ran into an Apple store on her show and bought 20 to support the Global Fund, wouldn't it have made more sense for her to just give the $5000 to the Global Fund instead of using that money for iPods and only $200 going to it and the other $4800 going to Apple, Inc.? And couldn't those companies, if they really wanted to help the Global Fund, have just given the $100 million to it, and depend on "free" advertising for Red?
The CEO of the Red brand defends the low numbers by pointing out that the corporations that carry Red products keep a lot of the profit for themselves. (He also contradicts the numbers but agrees that marketing cost more than the brand has raised. The Advertising Age says they did their research on those numbers.) He says:
Our goal is to create a model where private companies can do good and make money at the same time.
Now let's not kid ourselves by thinking that Red is doing anything new. Corporations have been giving a portion of the profits of specific items to charity forever. I just had a yogurt that gave three cents to research a cure for breast cancer, but I'm not about to stuff my fridge full of them in hopes that the $3.42 that would go to charity will be the $3.42 that gets the cure.
What they're doing is on-face good - giving money to charity - but one has to wonder if this is ultimately counterproductive. Red's CEO says that the advertising that's being done for Red could be driving up sales for these corporations in ways that can't be measured by increasing foot-traffic in store and accessory sales. Isn't the crazy crazy crazy shopping mentality and materialism that the marketing campaign is entirely based on a cause of the problems it's trying to fix?
Now, to criticize materialism in America means that you're going to get personally attacked. Saying that some people just have too much junk or money gets you labeled as an anti-capitalist pinko anarchist if you're liberal or a militant separatist gun-freak if you're conservative, a hypocrite if you're rich or sour grapes if you're poor, ignorant of the "real world" if you're educated or ignorant of economic theory if you're not. But what does that say about us if we're unwilling to have a real discussion of money and class and how it relates to the problems that we're supposedly trying to solve without just getting pissy?
Taking small steps here, isn't poverty most likely a large part of the reason that many African nations has such a crisis with AIDS? And could that poverty be somewhat related to huge subsidies that the US and European countries put on their agricultural products that make them cheaper than local products in many African countries so that the local people are better off supporting foreign business instead of local, never having the capital necessary for economic development? I mean, are you all going to give me that one? And aren't those subsidies there to maintain US and European economic domination over the Global South so that we can keep on buying things like iPods and red jeans? eh? EH?
Or maybe I'm just a anti-capitalist pinko anarchist hypocrite who doesn't know anything about the real world. But I actually think I'm onto something.
Especially with hearing Oprah declare that shopping is giving and Motorola using the slogan "Use Red, nobody's dead". If someone at home watching that decides to buy a Red iPod instead of donating that $250 to charity, thinking that she's being charitable by buying an iPod that she doesn't really need, doesn't that just take $240 away from charity? And don't tell me that the Red campaign is just diverting profits to charity on purchases that people would have otherwise made - not even the Red CEO believes that one.
And what about the colonization of socially responsible discourse by using all that save the world by shopping rhetoric? My theory on why Christian conservatives are generally anti-choice is because of the co-option of Jesus' social justice message by corporate America. Hard-core Christians are a real threat to the trickle-up economics such business owners depend on, so why not take that desire to create justice, pronounce disingenuously that the Bible says life begins at conception, and then declare conservatism Christian? It worked pretty well. And why not take charitable people's desire to help others, declare disingenuously that shopping is giving, and then pronounce materialism charitable?
Lord, if it's half that effective, we'll be hearing Paris Hilton being compared to Mother Teresa soon. But while I wait, I'll have another yogurt.