Will Product (RED) Shake Up HIV Advocacy?

[img_assist|nid=1068|title=Bono & Oprah|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=158|height=211]Product (RED), an initiative conceived by Bono to get international brands to market and support the Global Fund for AIDS, TB, & Malaria, officially hit American shores Friday. I have a feeling that many readers are wondering what on earth it is and that most readers cock their heads when they hear “Bono” and “Global Fund” in the same sentence (albeit for dramatically different reasons, depending on what you think of Bono). Regardless, you won’t be wondering for much longer. But the question I have to ask is, “Why didn’t you know in the first place?”

Until Friday’s full page ads in the NYT and elsewhere and the few minor notes in major news sources, one answer to that question is that they haven’t really been worried about telling “you.” Let me qualify that: they haven’t been worried about telling people who already get it. And they haven’t spent much time on people over age 25 either (not implying anything about our readers here!). But what they have done is launch a seriously hip MySpace page. They have co-branded Motorola RAZRs, Apple iPods, fashion-forward Chuck Taylors (yes, such things exist), Gap jeans, and Armani shades. They’re sponsoring a “Hotel Café Tour” featuring dozens of musicians, most of whom you probably haven’t heard of unless you hang out with the hippest high school kids or around college dorms.

When Product (RED) was announced in Davos, Switzerland last year at the World Economic Forum, Bono made a statement that is now famous among some (mostly the geeky, under-30 idealistic set applying for Echoing Green and Ashoka Fellowships instead of Fulbrights): "Philanthropy is like hippy music, holding hands. Red is more like punk rock, hip-hop; this should feel like hard commerce…People see a world out of whack. They see the greatest health crisis in 600 years and they want to do the right thing, but they're not sure what that is. Red is about doing what you enjoy and doing good at the same time." (emphasis added)

Now, questions about selling out, consumerism, Africa-as -the-latest fashion trend, and the structural causes that are perpetuating the AIDS crisis in developing nations do need to be addressed. (Bono: “We are not endorsing their products, these products endorse us.”) But before we get lost in them, let’s remember one thing: Product (RED) is engaging a huge demographic of contented, wealthy young people that, save for a blip on their radar on 9/11/01, don’t tend to be very engaged with the problems in their world.

Motorola’s Product (RED) website has an education module that helps users visualize how much small amounts of money can do in a developing country to fight HIV/AIDS. (RED)’s “Manifesto” starts out, “All things being equal, they are not. As first world consumers, we have tremendous power. What we collectively choose to buy, or not to buy, can change the course of life and history on this planet.” I’d say that puts a significant extra variable into the basic anti-brand ideology a la No Logo. If there’s going to be advertising (which there is), my generation could use more advertising like this.

Why don’t more advocates embrace this, or even know about it? Is there so much interest in Africa that people have to prove all their credentials before they can get involved?

At some point, I think the answer to that is yes. Bono, Kanye, Penelope Cruz and others might be inspiring young consumers to get involved in the AIDS emergency (hence red – as in “code red”), but what is that involvement exactly? Many have criticized Bono and his NGO, Data, for primarily throwing money at the problem and funding ARVs instead of prevention and other measures. Money is great, but spending it well is even better. Stopping the AIDS emergency will take much more than money for drugs. It will require stopping the spread of the disease (and thereby the need for drugs). As Product (RED) moves forward, I hope that they get into more than ARVs. Treatment alone is not a solution to any problem.

Part of that transition might require getting their hands a little dirty, politically. Yesterday, after taping an episode of Oprah, Bono and (RED) CEO Bobby Shriver met with President Bush on board Air Force One in Chicago. Bono is famous and deserves much credit, in my opinion, for getting Jessie Helms to start talking about AIDS. Treatment is a safe bet politically (see also: PEPFAR budget), but the reality that Bush Administration policies are hindering prevention efforts needs to be dealt with as an emergency in its own rights.

But returning to questions of credentials, I would also suggest that Product (RED) is supplementing with creativity and a bit of boldness what it lacks in credentials. Again, from the Manifesto: “(RED) is not a charity. It is simply a business model. You buy (RED) stuff. We get the money, buy the pills and distribute them.” (RED) joins Google, Virgin, and others from the world of “hard commerce” who are trying to find new ways to make bigger differences.

Now, it remains to see that difference be made, and for advocates to join with these sorts of ventures to make sure things get done right.

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