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October 10, 2011 / Lisa & Stefano

The AIDS Crisis in Africa- guest blogger Rachel Sullivan Robinson

I am a sociologist/demographer who teaches in the School of International Service at American University in Washington, DC. I asked the students in my undergraduate honors seminar, The AIDS Crisis in Africa, to read Chapter 2, “The Rock Man’s Burden,” of Brand Aid as part of this week’s readings, which describe and critique the funding available for the AIDS epidemic, particularly in Africa.Having now thoroughly read the introduction and Chapter 2 of Brand Aid, I am left with three core questions:
1. While RED’s focus is on antiretrovirals (ARVs), and thus treatment of AIDS, the Global Fund does support prevention activities. Is there any way to appeal to consumers in order to promote prevention?
2. If you are going to buy the iPod anyway, why *not* buy the RED one?
3. How can “we,” as rich Westerners concerned about AIDS in Africa, get to “know” AIDS in an authentic and valuable way?
I expand on each of these questions briefly below.Much of Richey and Ponte’s intellectual work is to show that RED functions through a treatment virtualism that makes AIDS a distant problem that can be solved through money used to buy ARVs. Clearly, however, AIDS cannot be solved by money alone, as the transmission of HIV, the actions that can help prevent it, and even the treatment of AIDS are bound up in a complex web of social, political, and economic factors. Some of these factors are local to the contexts in which the majority of those at risk for HIV live, but many others are not, and derive from the relationships between rich and poor countries related to trade, security, and history. I challenge my class, and anyone reading this, to think about how prevention can be turned into something sexy that simultaneously raises awareness about the stake, albeit most often distal, that those of us living in rich, northern democracies have in health outcomes in African countries.

The second question rises from an issue that Richey and Ponte present in the introduction, which is the debate about whether RED purchases represent “new” money going towards AIDS, or if they substitute for some other use of the money that would have been more positive. Individuals can, for example donate directly to the Global Fund (, or any number of other good organizations, including local African organizations. So then the question is, do you really need the iPod?

In Chapter 2, Richey and Ponte strongly critique RED’s use of imagery in its advertising campaigns and in the July 2007 issue of Vanity Fair promoting the campaign. As a teacher of students who are interested in a variety of different African countries but have frequently not had the ability to visit, I am sympathetic to the plight of knowing a place only through its images. Furthermore, visiting African countries, learning about local organizations, or meeting HIV-positive people does not necessarily ensure accurate understanding, if such a thing even exists. So I ask my students, what would you like to see? What do you think you need to understand to be a responsible consumer (pun not necessarily intended) of the AIDS epidemic in Africa?

More information about Rachel Sullivan Robinson




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  1. Monica / Oct 11 2011 10:23 pm

    How do you market philanthropy as a totally genuine character without the
    ulterior motives? Many cause-related marketing campaigns like (RED) mean
    well in its intentions but inadvertently support the image that Africa is
    a struggling land that must lean on the help of developed countries.
    Although the Rock Man?s efforts are strategically admirable, perhaps it is
    a bit shortsighted regarding the education of its consumers. How many
    people really become aware of the causes that the Rock Man promotes?
    Looking through a businessman?s shades, we may view cause marketing with
    the idea that a buyer wants to feel good while buying a product. Here,
    it’s that social responsibility tagline to get consumers to purchase one
    product over another. Perhaps this approach is shortsighted because it
    does not necessarily deepen the consumer’s knowledge about the issues in
    Africa. It’s almost a shallow way of contributing to a cause– buying
    something and not really sacrificing anything. However, this could very
    well be a good thing because it is convenient for people to contribute to
    a distant cause. I argue that it is better for consumers to purchase
    African products in an effort to alleviate poverty or to fund AIDS-related
    causes. Implementing this idea in the marketplace would empower Africans,
    and in effect, change the dynamics in meeting its own needs and being
    responsible to raise awareness and education for the causes we are all
    concerned about.

    • Lisa & Stefano / May 14 2012 10:06 pm

      Thanks Monica for pointing to one of the important effects of brand aid– the transfer of our ‘ethical’ consideration away from the product itself (is it fair trade,sustainable, organic, local, etc.) and toward the cause (is it authentic?).

  2. Allie / Oct 11 2011 10:24 pm

    The commodification of tragedies and major global issues is extremely
    interesting and relevant to current discussion about the AIDS crisis. The
    RED campaign (and others like it) provides an outlet for Americans to
    perpetuate materialistic habits while feeling morally satisfied that they
    contributed to a worthy cause. However, a t-shirt from Gap that says
    ?Inspi(RED)? does not personalize or make the issue real to the westerner
    buying it; rather, it creates a wedge between the consumer?s perceptions
    of the issue and reality. The ?picture? as Richey defines in Brand Aid
    that is presented of Africa very clearly victimizes the AIDS-sufferers in
    the region. The consumers of these products believe that by purchasing
    these commodities, they are helping those poor HIV-positive Africans who
    can?t help themselves. In general, when thinking about the African AIDS
    epidemic, a westerner will picture a woman or young child greatly
    suffering because these are the images that are fed to us. This propagates
    the divide between us (Americans/westerners) and them (Africans), a
    mentality that reverts back to previous discussions about Africa?s place
    in the world and its purpose in the world?s modern economic, political,
    and social scope. It also provides an arena for reinforcement of negative
    stereotypes of Africans as being victimized and dependent on aid from
    developed countries.
    On the other hand, this tool for raising funds is quite effective in our
    materialism-oriented culture. Although it does support certain stereotypes
    and, in my opinion, somewhat negative ways of thinking about Africans, the
    fact of the matter is that it is raking in money that is applied to the
    improvement of the AIDS crisis in Africa. Therefore, I am conflicted about
    how I feel about its implementation in America. Unfortunately, this type
    of campaign is very attractive to our culture and is therefore probably
    one of the best ways to raise money and awareness for the issue.

    • Lisa & Stefano / May 14 2012 10:04 pm

      Dear Allie,

      But is it really only more money that international development, global AIDS or environmental causes need?

  3. Christine / Oct 11 2011 10:26 pm

    I definitely see where you’re coming from, Sarah. I agree that it’s
    fascinating that aid-givers have found ways to manipulate our society’s
    materialistic nature. Personally, I struggle with the decision of whether
    or not this is a positive thing. As the author of “The Rock Man’s Burden”
    notes, there are some serious downfalls to manipulating our materialism in
    this way – often resulting in misunderstandings and manipulations of the
    cause itself. However, the author seems to me to overlook the fact that a
    good deal proceeds and donor dollars DO come from these kinds of
    campaigns. Is it better to gain this extra funding for the AIDS relief
    efforts (even if this does go to the exclusively “successful” programs)
    while possibly undermining understanding and perpetuating stereotypes, or
    is it better to be highly critical of usually well-meaning efforts like
    these to the point of shutting them down and removing the money that they
    make for the cause? That was a question that constantly came up for me
    while reading that chapter, and I don’t know where I stand on it. I
    definitely think that it’s important for us to critique endeavors that
    ally with capitalist goals to make sure that their main purpose isn’t
    corporate profits, but I feel like they might be a useful tool. While
    they manipulate us and cause some problems, they do it because that’s what
    works. I feel like it might be just as much a fault of our society that
    these campaigns need to use “fashion, rock music, or celebrity,” sex
    appeal, and stereotypes in order to garner our support as it is the fault
    of those who manipulate us in this way. At least the latter has some kind
    of noble goal other than self-interest.
    As far as the issue of money being funneled to more stable, less corrupt
    governments, I only partially agree that this is an issue of aid being
    used as a foreign policy tool. While that is certainly true, and I agree
    that it’s a big issue for aid, I believe that funneling aid toward more
    stable governments is sometimes a good decision. While people dealing
    with corrupt and ineffective governments might often need these dollars
    more (and we definitely need to recognize and target that issue), it is
    often true that aid going to countries with these problems becomes
    ineffective almost immediately. In these countries, only a small portion
    of aid actually gets to its target goal or group, and the rest must go to
    administrative costs (including bribes, among other things) that are much
    higher where there is an unstable, corrupt government. Sometimes, it
    might be money might be more effective in countries that don’t suffer from
    these problems, even though the need may not be quite so great.

  4. Sarah / Oct 11 2011 10:27 pm

    Brand Aid to me is fascinating. I think it is totally ingenious for
    someone to take our sometimes materialistically obsessed culture and use
    it for a better cause. And it is almost like a marketing idea that will
    never fail. People want to do something useful/good because of the own
    selfish gain they typically receive from it. People want to have those
    feel good moments. And so if you take a Gap t-shirt and write RED on it
    and say that 50% of the proceeds from the sale of that t-shirt will be
    going towards AIDS relief in Africa, people get that feel good moment and
    are much more likely to buy that product than another plain old red
    t-shirt. I remember when Gap first started to sell RED brand products in
    their stores. I even have the pin they used to sell on my backpack. As an
    economics major, I just find it so incredibly smart to capitalize on
    peoples? want for feel good moments and actually using the money for a
    good cause.
    Something that I read in our readings this week really bothered me. One
    author (I think it was Cohen) mentioned that some countries don?t
    typically receive HIV/AIDS aid because they have corruption issues or an
    unstable government or even lack the infrastructure to make sure that the
    aid is put to good use. I realize that aid is typically used as a foreign
    policy tool, but at some point I really hope we begin to look past that.
    The people of the country who are suffering should not be punished due to
    their leaders? mistakes.

  5. Allie Stauss / Oct 13 2011 4:29 am

    After reading “The Rock Man’s Burden,” conversing with Lisa Richey, and engaging in lively discussion in class about the potential merits and pitfalls of branding aid (e.g. the RED campaign), I am left very internally conflicted. Ultimately, this issue comes down to a push-and-pull between appealing to westerners while simultaneously preserving an accurate depiction of the AIDS plight in Africa.
    Personally, I feel that effective, lasting change comes through groups and individuals who are deeply committed and connected to an issue. In the example of the RED campaign, it is likely that most of the consumers who buy these products are not sufficiently informed of the devastation that HIV has caused in sub-Saharan Africa. Even if they are somewhat aware, my guess is that once they buy their red t-shirt or iPod, they won’t give the epidemic a second thought. Furthermore, as was discussed in class, this type of commodification of an issue becomes a craze or a fad, not a commitment to the improvement of African lives. As we’ve seen, the sale of these types of products significantly diminished after its peak a couple years back. Thus, a certain degree of distance is placed between the western consumer and the supposed African beneficiary. In a way, this commodification reinforces racist ideals that are satirized in Easterly’s classic, “The White Man’s Burden.” It promotes the mentality that the responsibility of “saving the world” falls upon the materialism of the white populations.
    On the other hand, regardless of how the funds are raised, the fact of the matter is that money is being accumulated and devoted to the betterment of the crisis in Africa. Although there are better, more effective ways to acquire money, this method is widespread and targets demographics that may not choose to contribute to such causes without a material incentive. The bottom line: western culture revolves around materialistic motivations. So, despite the cultural inaccuracies of victimizing Africans through images without actually embracing the heart of the issue, programs such as RED bring in money that would not have otherwise been contributed (in all likelihood). It seems like a cop-out to say that I understand both arguments for and against the concept of “brand aid.” However, despite the shortcomings of these programs, I think that the ingenuity and creativity involved in implementing the RED campaign is pointing development of better solutions in the right direction. That is what encourages me.

    • Christine / Oct 17 2011 7:54 am

      Allie – my views on this issue are very similar to yours. As I mentioned in my earlier post, I think that much of what the authors of “Brand Aid” criticize in the RED campaign is just as much a critique of the materialism and consumerism of Western society. That said, I agree that while there are downfalls and negative consequences to the way that RED functions and appeals to consumers, this does garner financial support that would not otherwise go to the cause. The judgement of which is better – more funds or less of the negative consequences of RED’s approach – seems to me to be quite subjective. I feel that it can be argued either way, and I clearly haven’t decided how I feel about it. But, I definitely think that whatever approaches are taken to gain support for worthy, important causes like AIDS must necessarily take into account Western culture in order to be successful.
      While it might be easy for those of us already interested in and devoted to causes like these to say that it would be better to simply inform the community, making them as passionate about these issues as we are, I don’t believe that this approach can work very often, if at all. The reality of the situation is that people in the West are disconnected from issues like these, and one person can only support so many causes. If we were to try to inform people sufficiently on every worthy cause that exists in the world in order to get their support, I really think that it would simply result in information overload. People have to pick and choose what they pursue deep levels of knowledge on. I know that I certainly can’t keep fully informed on more than a few core international causes, even though I’m devoting my career and education to international studies… How could I expect someone who doesn’t have those same interests to be fully informed on every issue if even I can’t do that?
      I think that at a certain level, those of us who are passionate about causes like AIDS need to find ways to make the issue work in the context of our society. Yes – this might mean that sometimes we might need to manipulate the consumerism that drives the West. But is this malevolent? Of course it’s harmful to do it in the way that RED does! I know that when I finally flipped through the special issue of Vanity Fair that is discussed in “Brand Aid” I was disgusted and deeply offended. Clearly, there is a line that must be drawn. But I think that in some respects we can look at what RED has done and learn a lot from it. We definitely need to change many things about it, making it more effective, positive, and constructive, but the core idea clearly works and I think we can improve upon it and run with it.

  6. Maria Cribbs / Oct 17 2011 1:13 am

    What I found particularly interesting after reading “The Rock Man’s Burden” and speaking with Lisa Richey was how the RED campaign is structured. We discussed how certain business are designed around a cause or charity, and how in these businesses the donations are not simply based on a percentage of profits. This is not, however, how the RED campaign is run. In this campaign, a percentage of profits are donated to HIV/AIDS. Additionally, businesses participating the campaign such as Gap exist for the sole purpose of making a profit. These two factors combined seem dangerous to me because they encourage cutting corners to lower costs and increase profits. In this particular case, it would benefit both the cause and the business to lower production costs by exporting labor and paying the workers less. That way both the Gap and HIV/AIDS funds get more money. This does not line up with the RED campaign’s message of social responsibility; in helping combat HIV/AIDS the Gap (and other companies like it) as well as consumers could be perpetuating another global issue.
    That being said, I don’t disagree with cause-related marketing in general. The cause would undoubtedly benefit most if a large majority of the population was well educated on and personally invested in the issue, however that doesn’t mean that money donated by a less educated/invested individual does any less good. With the right business structure (not necessarily what the companies involved in the RED campaign have…) cause-related marketing can be extremely effective, playing off of people’s desire to do good (without having to put in much effort) as well as American/western consumerism. As far as it being a fad, I’m not sure that is entirely a bad thing. True, fads fade, so as a whole HIV/AIDS funding should not be based on campaigns such as this, but the point of a fad is that it becomes widely popular very quickly. This means that if causes and organizations can benefit from an existing fad or even create a fad (as the RED campaign did) they can gain access to resources that would otherwise be unavailable to them. So long as they don’t overestimate the impact it will have and are prepared for the fad to fade, the money raised can be put to good use without causing damage.

  7. Carly / Oct 17 2011 3:00 am

    Like my fellow classmates, I am also torn about branding aid. Can we convince people to give charitably to people in desperate need without materializing it? I believe that it is American culture to materialize everything. The most successful philanthropic organizations have associated a “cool” product with their cause. RED is a perfect example. HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment is a crucial area of need for millions of people around the globe. Initially, not many people wanted to give plain, old money to a charity. People will get involved when there is a product that they can buy and show off to their family, friends, coworkers, everyone. By wearing a RED shirt or listening to music on the RED iPod, you can make sure everyone knows that you have done a good deed for people less fortunate. The popularity of the products will sky-rocket for a short period of time because the fad becomes a sign of status among peers. I remember in middle school when all the “cool” kids were wearing RED t-shirts, I asked a friend what the shirt meant. The reply was, “The money goes to some charity.” Utterly baffled, I asked a teacher for what cause the shirts were raising money. It was only then that I was told that the organization raised money to raise awareness and provide aid to African countries and the HIV/AIDS epidemic. I didn’t understand why my classmates would buy shirts for a cause they didn’t even know about.

    This realization is exactly why branding aid works. Some people will only give money to a charity if it is the “cool” thing to do at that moment. The boom of money to the RED campaign made great strides when the product was the fad, but what happens when RED products go out of style? The Livestrong bracelets had the same effect. Everyone had to rush out and get a Livestrong bracelet a few years ago, however, you will not see anyone wearing one of those bracelets today.

    We cannot say branding aid is bad because charities have to do what they can to raise donations. In our culture today of intense materialism, branding aid seems to be the most effective path.

    • Lisa & Stefano / May 14 2012 10:03 pm

      Dear Carly,

      yes, brand aid is as you point out in your comment, mostly about branding ourselves as ethical consumers, or as Bono says, ‘good-looking Samaritans’.

  8. Savannah Bailey / Oct 17 2011 3:48 am

    After reading the excerpt from “Brand Aid,” I was left considering that the RED campaign might not be the best thing in the world for Africa. Many facets of RED are further emphasizing Africa’s place in the world as a home for disease, war, and corruption. RED claims that it is teaching American youth about Africa, but really, it seems that all RED is doing is promoting material value, providing a vessel for low-cost heroism, and reminding young people that Africans have no voice, are a thing of pity, and as consumers buying a RED product they are really making a difference. The whole concept of Brand Aid is strange to me, and as a marketing major I find it fascinating. There are many companies who seem to exploit problems in Africa, and other developing countries, to help sell products to consumers who want to buy to save the world. One such company is TOMS, a shoe retailer. The first thing you see on their website: “With every pair you purchase, TOMS will give a pair of shoes to a child in need.” TOMS has been wildly successful, particularly in the younger generations who think the shoes are cool and a status symbol that shows they are aware of global issues. However, TOMS shoes are manufactured in China. The irony of this is just sad, similar to how Bono declared that with the RED campaign he was trying to bring sex appeal to the AIDS epidemic. This blatant hypocrisy of brand aid is what really turns me away from the concept, and makes me wary as a consumer when a company is flaunting how much their brand is helping the world.

  9. Elinor / Oct 17 2011 4:38 am

    During our class discussion about Brand Aid, I really started thinking about these products that promote causes for a profit essentially. I have to be honest…they do attract me as a consumer. I have the (RED) iPod, the TOMS shoes, and I wanted the OmniPeace t-shirt. Truthfully, I sort of still do. But after our discussion, I am a little more realistic about where there profits do go. Businesses are out to make money; otherwise they would not be a business (or at least not a successful one). So, I find it a little unfair to chastise them for making a profit. But, I think that when it comes to things like (RED) there is a framing issue. I think the best way to demonstrate this is by comparing (RED) to an organization like Bead For Life. A (RED) purchase is about you—you are buying their products because you want to help a cause. On the flipside, Bead For Life is advertised with more of a focus on those that created your product and those that will be helped through the purchase of the product. This subtle framing difference ends up making a big difference I think. It doesn’t matter if a Westerner leads the company (both Bead for Life and (RED) are Western-based organizations); in order to make it more relevant to Africa, it is all a matter of framing. Ultimately, I think that deliberate framing of a product around Africa and the issue instead of the consumer is a positive way that businesses can educate Western consumers and make them a little more responsible.

    • Lisa & Stefano / May 14 2012 10:01 pm

      Thanks Savannah for the attention and engagement with TOMS– it is on our short list for further analysis!

  10. Justine / Oct 17 2011 12:02 pm

    There is much debate in the HIV/AIDS aid community about where money should be going when it comes to combating HIV/AIDS in Africa. The RED campaign plays on the idea of the “White Man’s Burden” to encourage consumers to buy RED products, thereby granting ARVs to an infected African and “saving their life.” RED therefore focuses on treatment, rather than prevention, and yet it is prevention that is needed to stop the further spread of the epidemic. While treatment has the effect of instant gratification, a thing much-loved by Westerners, it is not a long-term solution. In fact, RED itself will most likely not be long-term. It is a fad, and as with all fads, demand decreases with time. This is the inherent problem in the RED campaign – it develops a connection between the consumer and the product, not the consumer and HIV/AIDS crisis in Africa. In fact, the African being saved becomes a part of the product, a way for the rich westerners to feel good about themselves for a few days. While the RED campaign is well intentioned and does, in the short-term, hold the promise of providing money for treatment, its shortcomings cannot be ignored. Professor Robinson asks us how we can get to “know” AIDS in Africa in an authentic way, and I think this problem applies to all problems in Africa.
    I believe that unless people want to become engaged in an issue as distant as the HIV/AIDS crisis in Africa, they will not take interest. It is going to be up to the people who are interested, who do feel that there is an invested interest in the health and livelihood of Africans, to inspire those around them to take up interest as well. We are constantly bombarded by images of starving, dying Africans by organizations asking for money. Eventually, this is going to lead to numbness. As a 19 year old just beginning to explore Africa and the issues that plague the continent, I do not have all the answers. However, I know that with my passion I will inspire others to care, and by doing so, spread awareness. Innovation and creativity are what is needed to bring authentic awareness to HIV/AIDS in Africa. A more interactive RED campaign, an accompanying documentary that goes along with the purchase for the consumer to watch, a raffle to win a trip to Africa to work at an HIV/AIDS clinic. I believe that these are the kinds of things needed to bring authenticity to consumers of RED products. Yes, it requires perhaps a little less profit on behalf of the RED campaign, but ultimately, their goal should be helping Africans, rather than helping themselves.

    • Lisa & Stefano / May 14 2012 10:00 pm

      Dear Christine,

      We completely agree that interventions need to be more effective, positive and constructive and that better debate, with more participants from the communities targeted as ‘beneficiaries’ of aid is a good place to start. Critical engagement by scholars, students and shoppers is another one.

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