New Internationalist

Punk rock capitalism?

Issue 395

Is Bono’s brainchild of raising money for the fight against AIDS from big brands inspi or ill-conside? Jess Worth interviews Tamsin Smith – Head of Product Red, and Sheila Roche – Red Director of Global Communications.

Red alert: Gisele Bundchen, the world’s highest-paid supermodel, delights in the belief that her spending sprees will save Masai warrior Keseme Ole Parsapaet’s life in the latest American Express ‘Product Red’ advert.

Product Red is ‘a constellation of some of the world’s most iconic global brands’ (American Express, Gap, Converse/Nike, Motorola, Armani) who have created special ‘Red’ products. A proportion of the profits go to the Global Fund1 to buy anti-retroviral drugs for people in Africa. Launched in the UK last spring and supported by MySpace.com, The Independent newspaper, and a gaggle of celebrities including Scarlett Johansson, Claudia Schiffer and the Scissor Sisters, it is now being promoted in North America.

Jess: The adverts have been encouraging people to join ‘The Red Revolution’. In what sense is buying a Red product revolutionary?

Tamsin: We use the word ‘punk rock capitalism’. There are some people who want to march on Washington or 10 Downing Street, and other people who just aren’t that politically active and engaged. Red provides a very immediate empowering mechanism for someone to do something quite revolutionary, to cause a big corporation to break off a portion of its profit and put it towards a huge social challenge. For us to be able to flip around that Red American Express card2 and read the words ‘designed to eliminate AIDS in Africa’ is an incredible and really revolutionary concept. The thing with revolutions is that sometimes they happen and they’re over. We want to be an insurgency that is ongoing, something that is infectious and can be ingrained in shopping culture.

Sheila: Ultimately, I hope that consumers in all categories can shop Red. They can buy something really fabulous and have it do this incredibly powerful thing.

J: Wasn’t punk rock invented to rebel against the prevailing system, to rebel against capitalism?

T: Like a lot of oxymorons there’s irony in that conflict. When we speak of punk rock we mean not just talking about change but ensuring that change happens. It’s the immediacy of the flow of funds to AIDS, that delivery and that action-orientation that makes it punk rock. We are harnessing the power and direct connection to human nature that capitalism has, and turning it to good.

S: It’s a way for the sinner to become saint – to spend money but to feel good about it. Red’s hip and sexy. Red is never about making a purchase because you’re feeling sorry for someone.

J: So it’s not about charity? Because the companies are still making money out of it?

S: And that’s the only way that Red survives. It’s a win-win-win situation. The companies get a lot of benefits – they still get to make their profits. Consumers get these great products that do this incredibly powerful thing and they don’t have to pay the premium for it. And the ultimate winner is somebody in Africa who gets to have their life ‘borrowed’ for them, by access to anti-retroviral drugs.

J: Do you think the only way to get business to contribute to charity is to allow them to make money out of it?

S: Well, and to get some of the credit.

J: Do the products have to be produced ethically, and do the companies have to have certain ethical standards?

S: We choose brands that are iconic. We have guiding principles and we ask and encourage our partners to uphold them. There are a lot of entities out there that do certification and analysis of companies’ ethical practices. We are not structured to do that vetting, but when a company joins Red they are essentially putting themselves on the line and will be under significant scrutiny because they are being very visible about what they stand for. We believe that is a regulating mechanism in and of itself.

J: If you look at global consumption as a whole there’s obviously a really big problem, because we in the West are consuming way beyond our ecological limits and need to massively reduce the amount we consume. How do you reconcile this with Product Red which only works if people consume more?

S: We really try to get the companies to do some of their trade in Africa. Gap has been making incredible efforts to make part of their Red range in Lesotho. They have started up a new programme to test and treat workers with HIV/AIDS in the factories where they’re making the clothing. Armani have been working with an African designer.

T: Motorola’s packaging is coming from sub-Saharan Africa and they’re looking to do manufacturing there. So a worker in a factory in Lesotho who is making the t-shirt for the Gap line is not only benefiting from the programme which will provide her access to anti-retroviral drugs. She’s actually creating the channel of funding by making that shirt. That is an incredibly empowering concept. When consumers start learning these stories they will be much more mindful of where and how products are made. When you provide people with better choices we believe they’ll not only stop buying things willy-nilly but perhaps also be more targeted in the quantity of things they purchase.

Bono guest-edited The Independent newspaper in May to launch Product Red.

J: Do you think Red will ever actively promote some kind of political action as well as just buying products?

T: Yes – I mean, one of Bono’s phrases is that Red could potentially be a ‘gateway drug’ to the ‘One’ campaign.3 It’s a very simple solution for people who maybe don’t have time to write to their political representative, and will think ‘wow, that’s fun, I can go and buy that thing and you know what, the company’s gonna give 50 per cent of their profits to the Global Fund, that’s a really cool thing to do’. I don’t think Red needs to become political, but it certainly can complement the political work that is ongoing.

S: We’re trying to go to where people are. And you know, they’re shopping.

  1. The Global Fund to fight AIDS, TB and Malaria was set up by the G8 in 2001. Despite the global emergency caused by these three diseases it has been consistently under-funded by governments ever since. http://www.theglobalfund.org
  2. One per cent of everything spent on the Red American Express card goes to the Global Fund. The other companies have not revealed what proportion of their profits they are donating.
  3. The US campaign to make poverty history. http://www.one.org

‘Degrading, insulting and misleading’ – Not everyone’s joining the (RED) revolution

‘To its credit, Red does seem to exist to raise money for the Global Fund. But if you look at the marketing, this fact is almost an afterthought. ‘You are saving the WORLD!’ It gives off a cavalier sentiment towards the Global Fund: its work seems a minor detail and few people know what it is or how it functions. The charity really could have been anything. Instead the ‘help others by helping yourself’ marketing message hits at the consumer’s conscience to buy away Western guilt, instead of getting to grips with genuine solutions to the AIDS crisis. Red is offering a kind of absolution by consumption. Until it becomes more proactive in communicating the issues as well, it will remain just another marketing scheme that does more good for the profile and sales of the corporations involved than for the fight against AIDS.’
Esther Lim, academic

‘The idea that a poor African’s life is being ‘borrowed’ for them by a rich white person is not a revolutionary concept. It is degrading, insulting and misleading, further entrenching the idea that this is how the world works and that’s ok. In terms of ethical standards, Red is the very opposite of a regulatory mechanism. The costs will no doubt be written off in the companies’ PR budgets, they will get a huge amount of positive publicity and extra sales off the back of it, and they do not have to make any improvements in the way they treat their workers across the world. These companies are helping perpetuate the very system that is impoverishing Africans and driving the AIDS pandemic. Business has to be more involved in the world beyond its profit margins, but Product Red is not the form this involvement should take. Fundraising is welcome, but Red’s rhetoric (the gross simplifications, the sanctimony, the blacked-up white people) is not. With its grandiose claims and complete lack of a political message, I can’t see how Product Red can be a positive force.’
Will Horwitz, student AIDS activist

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