Brand Aid: Shopping Well to Save the World

March 31, 2011

From the Cadbury family in the 19th century to Bill and Melinda Gates in the 21st, philanthropy and business have a long association. But today's philanthropist is more likely to be in the business of celebrity than manufacturing. What is different about the celebrity philanthropist of the generation considered here is that they look to Western consumers to help their cause by consuming more, rather than differently.

The initiative so rigorously debated in Brand Aid: Shopping Well to Save the World is Product (RED), first launched in Davos in 2006 and designed to bring help to Africans living with HIV/Aids. Many well-known brands are associated with (RED), including American Express, iPod, Armani, Converse and Gap, although the number of companies involved has not grown significantly.

For those not familiar with (RED), these are co-branded products such as (RED)-coloured iPods or clearly branded (RED) Gap T-shirts. A percentage of the profit from the sale of such items goes to the Global Fund, which calls itself the world's leading financer of programmes to fight Aids, tuberculosis and malaria. The contribution has been significant; in its first four years (RED) gave around $150 million (£93.2 million) to the fund.

Above all, Lisa Ann Richey and Stefano Ponte's book is a critique of the West's relationship with Africa in the 21st century. They have considerable first-hand experience of living and working in Africa around those infected with or deeply affected by HIV/Aids. Brand Aid's view of this particular relationship between the West and Africa is that it is post-colonial consumerism, where through so-called compassionate consumption (or "causumer culture") we can ignore the reasons for poverty, including inequalities in political systems, production and trade, and focus instead on shopping.

This is a thoroughly researched and well-written book and one that pulls no punches; you know from the very first pages how the (RED) initiative will be dissected and found wanting. Celebrities, in particular Bono, the lead singer of U2 and (RED)'s co-founder, businesses and consumers all come in for a drubbing. Bono is criticised for turning what is a crisis for many countries and individuals into a celebrity cause. Businesses are chastised for looking to boost their corporate social responsibility profile while not changing their business practices, and consumers for accepting this disengagement and finding another reason to shop.

In the book's four key chapters, the authors effectively examine the cornerstones of (RED)'s success: the celebrities who promote (RED) (bearing what the authors acidly call the "Rock man's burden"); the companies who sign up for cause-related business initiatives; and the consumers making choices based on emotional appeal (or "Doing good by shopping well", as one chapter title puts it).

There is also a densely packed chapter ("Saving Africa") that examines the range of funds and initiatives currently operating in Africa. Richey and Ponte argue that while traditional aid from bilateral and multilateral donors has been portrayed as in need of reform, it is private aid of the (RED) variety that is widely regarded as having the benefits of being both flexible and innovative. Yet Brand Aid reaches the perhaps inevitable conclusion that looking to funds derived from Western consumers buying more things is unlikely to be a long-term solution to Africa's ills.

This is a thoughtful and highly critical book. Celebrities, in particular, are rarely spared. But then most of the time the authors only have to use the celebrities' own words to make their point: Bono, for example, telling The New York Times that "Africa is sexy and people need to know that". This celebrity equation of Africa and sexiness seems hugely inappropriate for the HIV/Aids problem. And when there was surely an opportunity to use an African model to promote the cause, a special (RED) edition of The Independent newspaper featured a blacked-up Kate Moss instead. The Africans seen in publicity material are inevitably subjects used to illustrate the so-called Lazarus Effect: helpless people resurrected from Aids through the power of drugs supplied by the Christ-like ministrations of Western celebrities, businesses and consumers.

This separation is at the heart of the authors' argument. Celebrities use narratives of social change without having to acknowledge the inequalities in social and political systems that make celebrity possible. The same charge is levelled at (RED) businesses that can both make money and contribute easily, and consumers who can shop and salve their conscience at the same time.

Richey and Ponte make clear that their book is an intermediary study; they have not researched the motivations of the consumers or the participating corporations, or indeed the perceptions of the beneficiaries. As a reader, one cannot help but wish that they had moved into the motivational realm, if only to highlight another paradox of modern consumer choice.

Brand Aid: Shopping Well to Save the World

By Lisa Ann Richey and Stefano Ponte. University of Minnesota Press. 288pp, £42.50 and £14.00. ISBN 9780816665457 and 65464. Published 25 March 2011

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