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Can Bono, Cause-Marketing and Shopping Save the World?


“The best thing you can do for New York right now is to go out and shop !” –Rudy Giuliani , September 13, 2001

So decreed former NYC mayor Rudy Giuliani in answer to how New York was to re-settle itself economically – even spiritually – following the collapse of the World Trade Center towers. A crude suggestion, perhaps, but one nonetheless summarily taken up by millions upon millions of Americans, many of whom are likely now scratching their heads in debt-inspired bewilderment. Some others eschewed all ideas of retail therapy, post-9/11, electing instead to exercise a more quiet reserve in their commercialism – even towards “couture du jour,” produced on the cheap in China, though fashionable enough, still, to be seen on the backs of dueling pop divas Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera.

And so, finding the middle ground, retailers in due course came up with a new gimmick – one that could satisfy its own, for-profit commercial interests and yet gratify consumers’ newly awakened “sensitivities” towards the more troubling bits of global politics and affairs of state. That’s right, folks! It’s called: shopping.

It’s a Beautiful Day!

Cause-marketing – a strategy that associates the purchasing of a product with fundraising for charitable initiatives or “causes” – did, as of October, 2006, reach its eventual summit in the figure of U2 front-man, celebrity AIDS activist and quintessence of all things cool (and Irish!), Bono. Together with The Gap, Giorgio Armani, Apple, Motorola, American Express, Converse and Bobby Shriver of Debt AIDS Trade in Africa (DATA), Bono – now Sir Bono, officially – introduced the world to “product (RED),” a self-styled “for-profit brand” licensed to its partner companies, whose aim seeks in part to advance “opportunities for the people of Africa” and to “promote HIV/AIDS workplace policies and practices.”

Buoyed up by television and publishing juggernaut Oprah Winfrey, CNN’s Larry King and hip-hop artist Kanye West, Bono – clad in tight leather pants (author’s note: You’re fifty, B!), sporting newly shorn hair and wearing product (RED) wraparound Armani sunglasses – championed (RED) to American consumers as a “commercial imperative” that could engender “sustainable” income for AIDS relief in Africa.

Essentially, by buying (RED) products – which include everything from Red Gap Empowe(RED) t-shirts, special edition (RED) product Motorola moblies and product (RED) Apple iPod nanos – consumers were assured that (RED)’s accredited partners would donate anywhere from ten to fifty per cent of profits accrued towards the Genevabased aid organization, “Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria” in Africa (or more simply the “Global Fund”). This consequently would prompt American bad-boy comedian and activist Chris Rock to declare, “Use (RED), nobody’s dead,” and would thereafter see Steven Speilberg – in his first-ever commercial endorsement – proclaim that buying Gap (RED) products will “eliminate AIDS in Africa.”

(Pride) in the Name of Love

Several months on, however, product (RED) is now caught up in an international campaign of speculation and reprimand – a campaign whose banner asks, “Can shopping really save the world?” and “Does (RED) favour big-business interests more than Africa?”

A March 5, 2007, report issued by American advertising trade magazine Ad Age alleges that, less than one year into (RED)’s cause-related marketing initiative, approximately U.S. $100 million has been spent by “Bono & Co.” on promotional and advertising materials alone, while only some $18 million worldwide has been generated and allocated directly to the Global Fund – one fifth less than (RED)’s earlier stated projections.

“The disproportionate ratio between the marketing outlay and the money raised is drawing concern among nonprofit watchdogs, cause-marketing experts and even executives in the ad business,” Ad Age said. Blasted professor Mark Rosenman, columnist for the U.S.-based Chronicle of Philanthropy: “There is a broadening concern that business is taking on the patina of philanthropy and crowding out philanthropic activity and even substituting for it. [(RED)] benefits the for-profit partners much more than the charitable causes.”

(RED) co-founder Bobby Shriver has now blasted back, charging that the advertising trade magazine’s figures are “far off the mark,” the result of “irresponsible journalism” and that (RED)’s marketing efforts are valued at less than $50 million – not the $100 million reported by Ad Age. Shriver says some $25 million has been raised thus far for Global Fund programs in Africa by way of project (RED)’s efforts – five times the amount given to Global Fund initiatives by private-sector donors over the previous four years. “Raising $25m in just under 8 months on an investment of under $50m is a pretty damn good rate of return,” Shriver surmises. Ad Age, for the meantime, remains unwavering, saying it derived its marketing totals from “three different media experts’ estimates of the marketing partners’ outlay on print, TV, billboard and interactive ads.”

Whatever the advertising figure, the row over (RED)’s cause-marketing model was surely inexorable – the result of an ever-escalating population of consumers whose interest in helping others is contemporaneous with helping themselves to MOTORAZR V3 phones and iPods. “Activism is the new chic,” writes Newsweek’s Jessica Bennett, “and we, the consumers, have become the new activists – saving the world one credit-card transaction at a time.”

Indeed, shopping for a better world is now entrenched in the consumer ethic: buying a bottle of Starbucks’ Ethos water will resultantly deliver clean water to “children of the world”; owning a pink KitchenAid mixer brings with it promises of a cure for breast cancer; and Ben and Jerry’s “American Pie” brand ice cream urges buyers to support its campaign to redistribute U.S. federal budget monies towards the betterment of sick children.

But, says Jocelyn Daw, author of Cause Marketing for Non-Profits, raising or redistributing monies isn’t necessarily the principle aim of cause-marketing programs. “It can be an effective way to partner with a company, piggyback on their marketing and benefit from their brand and their reach to a range of consumers.” Fair enough, but worrisome, here, is that those purchasers can fall victim to what Queen’s University professor Samantha King, author of Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy, calls “I-gave-at-the-Gap passivity,” which can lower charitable efforts to the “cause du jour.”

Is the issue of AIDS in Africa then fated to meet with consumer inertia if cause-marketed as a commercial trend – a purchasable, passing “fashion” – much as were the rainforests (remember them?) and as were any number of Amnesty International campaigns on human-rights abuses? If so, are we as “cause” donors not better off in giving directly to aid agencies like Global Fund, rather than purchasing extravagant items we don’t actually need?

I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For

Unfortunately, private charitable giving has never presented an answer to the foremost structural problems in the Third World. Of this, writes The Independent’s Paul Vallely, “charities, like aid agencies, create exemplars of ideal projects, or help build a public mood that something has to be done, forcing governments to act. Aids is too massive a problem for anyone but governments to tackle.”

Bono’s product (RED) falls on the heels of his previous Africa-centric efforts – “Make Poverty History,” “Live8,” “The One Campaign” – initiatives aimed at stockpiling government attention and spending towards human-rights crises at the international level. But regrettably, not everyone wants to enlist in such movements, and certainly not everyone gives generously to charity or aid organizations like the Global Fund outright and directly.

At length, then, (RED) should be seen kindly – but with some reserve – as a pop star’s attempt to bring into the wider coalition of African debt and HIV/AIDS relief charities people who, had they not purchased (RED) mud-cloth Converse sneakers, would have simply bought one of another colour. (I understand the green is quite fetching, actually.) Undeniably, Bono may well prove to be the most triumphant celeb(RED)ty activist of our generation, whose visibility and political savvy has leveraged and influenced a movement that has drawn the attention of at least a few notable political principals.

As recently as April, 2007, the U.S. Congress committed a record-shattering $724 million direct donation to the Global Fund – the result of rigorous political pressure of which (RED)’s part, together with other, highly influential lobbyists and councils, should not be lowered or demeaned.

But just as sure as cause-marketed political issues fall in and out of consumers’ goodwill and favour, so too does celebrity. The effectiveness of Bono and other celebrity activists – whatever one makes of them – hinge to a great degree on the extent to which governments can fashion a durable institutional effort to reduce poverty and HIV/AIDS in Africa (and elsewhere) through lasting political transformation in foreign-development aid and assistance programs.

So, the Global Fund, project (RED) and other, similar initiatives should be regarded as winning efforts, but only insofar as political leaders, admits Sir Bono himself, “re-invent their awareness of their own responsibilities.” And in the end, holding heads of state accountable is society’s obligation, not rock stars’ – no matter how cool they (think they) are.

This article appeared in the July/August 2007 issue of Canadian Dimension (Artists & Politics).


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