(RED), an organization founded in 2006 by celebrity humanitarian Bono and activist Bobby Shriver has exploded all over the world with its partnerships with popular global brands, including Apple, Converse, Gap, Armani, and Starbucks. This brand, commonly known as (Product)RED, markets products in an attempt to raise funds and awareness for those living with HIV and AIDS in Africa. (RED) incentivizes customers to step up by providing individuals with the opportunity to make a positive impact, as a portion of all donations generated from (RED) campaigns go directly to the Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria. Product(RED) claims that they are fighting to solve the issue at hand, but they do so in ways that perpetuate the causes of the epidemic. The citizen-consumer, mobilized through celebrity humanitarianism, drives commodity fetishism which allows businesses to capitalize on humanitarianism.
In 2008, Starbucks, one of the largest coffee companies in the world, began its partnership with (RED), launching its 60-second “What If” advertisement. This advertisement poses a series of hypothetical questions, such as “what if when we help someone else, we help ourselves?” This “someone else” refers to Africans diagnosed with HIV and AIDS. However, interesting enough, the advertisement never mentions that the fund go towards contributing to HIV and AIDS prevention, only mentioning that they will “help save lives in Africa”. Upbeat piano music plays in the background of the advertisement, juxtaposing the seriousness of the issue with the lighthearted tone of the campaign. The thought-provoking promotion asks its viewers “What if we are not separated from everyone else, but connected?… What if just part of our purpose here is not me, but we” in an effort to connect its viewers to the epidemic of HIV and AIDS in Africa. The company encourages its audience to take action through its claim that being a part of the solution is much easier than it’s believed to be. The advertisement, which presents solely words and no images, is straightforward in its message: for every exclusive (Starbucks)RED drink bought during the holiday season, five cents will be contributed to helping save lives in Africa. Proceeds from the sale of hand-crafted beverages and other unique (RED) Starbucks merchandise and menu items are donated directly to the Global Fund to help finance HIV/AIDS prevention, education and treatment programs1. Starbucks leads us to believe that through collective efforts, it becomes possible to make significant progress in the fight against HIV and AIDS in Africa. The Starbucks (RED) campaign, claims “You & Starbucks. It’s bigger than coffee”, putting the focus on the individual and how their consumer behaviors can engage themselves in one of the world’s most pressing global health issues: the HIV and AIDS outbreak in Africa.
The Starbucks (RED) campaign certainly creates a good impression on its viewers, using celebrity humanitarian to integrate business with social concerns and motivate consumers. Celebrity humanitarian, Bono, brought the situation in Africa to the public eye, evoking sympathy and encouraging people who may not have known about the situation otherwise to contribute. Celebrity humanitarians, by involving themselves in urgent matters plaguing society, often play a key role in gathering support towards a particular cause. This technique, though well-intentioned, has unintended consequences. Richey and Pontey explain how the (Product)RED campaign attempts to “bring Africa to the minds of the idle rich… [using] celebrity together with the negotiated representation of a distant ‘Africa’” to address the solutions to the global issue. Despite charitable contributions made, the rich patronize the poor. Through these methods of extracting donations by evoking pity, foreign aid results in the framing of the underlying assumption that poor Africans are helpless and dependent on the charity of the more developed, superior Western powers.
The advertisement succeeds in its purpose of gathering funds, but it convinces citizen-consumers that their efforts will directly address the serious problems, even when they have no knowledge of where these funds are allocated. The citizen-consumer strives to unite the forces of consumerism with humanitarian foreign aid through their purchase decisions. Citizen-consumers experience a sense of pleasure through buying the charity merchandise, believing they can become part of the solution without needing to sacrifice anything significant. Nevertheless, the ways in which these consumers involve themselves are in reality for their own interests and not in the interests of those they are trying to help. Consumers end up contributing because of the conveniency of making a donation, and most of the time, they don’t have a full understanding of the causes they are donating to. This promotes the idea that consumers can “help people in ways that let [them] keep living their lives as is, while shedding some of [their] personal guilt” with the assumption that “positive social consequences will occur automatically, as a happy by-product of selfishness”. Starbucks’s Product(RED) advertisement does not disclose the cause they are supporting, but urges individuals to purchase their goods with the idea that their choice of brands and purchases can alter their engagement in real world issues, making them responsible, and ethically engaged citizens.
Starbucks’s partnership with (RED) is a manifestation of commodity fetishism, a term first used by Marx that describes “the necessary masking of social relations under which commodities are produced from which capitalist commodity production gains much of its legitimacy”. Through its branding of (Product)RED goods, Starbucks attempts to make a profit while addressing a fatal disease that plagues the lives of Africans, promoting the idea of doing well by doing good. Starbucks and its partnership with (Product)RED seems to “promote status, capitalism, and conspicuous consumption in the name of ‘helping’” while not disclosing the specifics of their aid activities. Starbucks engages in this commodity fetishism as its primary motive behind its partnership with (RED) is to maximize profits through selling (RED) branded goods and convince its consumers that buying coffee can save lives. Companies tend to not address the causes that underlie the issues they are focused on while highlighting the severity of the issue and how they plan on going about their solution: through gaining profits. (RED) asserts that they have the capabilities to fix the circumstances, so long as they are provided with sufficient funds for their plan of action, the Global Fund. (RED) explains how the solution is highly conceivable: a 20 cent pill taken everyday can stop mothers from passing HIV to their babies. They urge individuals to question, “why not contribute to such a simple solution?”, but they never question: if the solution is so simple, and the epidemic is so preventable, then why does it exist in the first place? What is the source of this problem that allowed it to grow to be so extensive to the point where it affects so many people? The answer, in this case, is poverty. The extremely unstable economic conditions in Africa prompted this wide-spread epidemic that now requires large funding to fix. This is the real problem that should be addressed, but efforts to combat this problem are insufficient. The (RED) campaign is committed to giving back through their business endeavors, representing a belief of business being the “universal access card for making progress, helping people, and changing the world”. The idea that the market is the most effective mechanism for pursuing social change only maintains the existing power dynamic. How could we possibly be able to change the world by maintaining the same economic status quo between the rich and poor? By not addressing the roots of the disastrous condition, companies only perpetuate the circumstances that gave rise to the problem in the first place, allowing capitalism to prevail.
A critical flaw in the way these humanitarian efforts are carried out is their unrealistic emphasis on simple solutions to complex global issues. The (RED) campaign, focused on the contributions of the citizen-consumer for funding, paves the way for commodity fetishism, in which celebrity humanitarians play a huge role. Commodity fetishism attempts to link humanitarianism and consumerism, allowing the rich to continue to profit off of the suffering of Africans. Consumers should ignore profit-maximizing motives to produce effective solutions to properly assist those living with HIV and AIDS in Africa. Though Starbucks claims that their efforts are producing a great impact with 5 cents from every exclusive drink purchased being donated to the Global Fund, the company certainly profits with the vast majority of their charity merchandise sales going towards their revenue. Consumers, when making purchases in attempts to do good, need to understand the importance of the complexity of making a real difference in the state of affairs in Africa. If the root causes behind the HIV/AIDS epidemic are not addressed, companies will continue to offer inadequate solutions that allow the disease to persist throughout the population.