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February 20, 2014 / lisaannrichey

Philanthropy and Capitalism: Critical Writing from Penn Students

Amy Brown – Introductory Blog Post

I am an educational anthropologist and a faculty member in the Critical Writing Program at the University of Pennsylvania. I teach an undergraduate seminar called Philanthropy and Capitalism, and Richey and Ponte’s Brand Aid: Shopping Well to Save the World is our course’s central text. Because my own forthcoming book focuses on how corporate philanthropy influences constructions of race and class in a public high school in New York City, I was immediately drawn to Richey and Ponte’s work, which explores similar phenomena in relation to “Brand Aid” in general, and Product RED more specifically. Like Richey and Ponte, I call into question the viability of private or corporate involvement as a means for social change or equity. My students come to class with a diverse set of interests, politics, majors and backgrounds. Richey and Ponte’s text provides a provocative and engaging platform through which to explore the contemporary possibilities (and problematics) of corporate philanthropy to solve social problems.

In the first half of the semester, we read Brand Aid alongside a selection of other texts written by Andrew Carnegie, Lillie Chouliaraki, Didier Fassin, Milton Friedman, Antonio Gramsci, Robin Kelley and Adam Smith. Using these texts as anchors, we explore not only the rhetorical and logical structures of authors’ arguments, but also how concepts of risk and humanitarianism define and construct people, communities and organizations. Through reading, writing, and discussion, we engage questions such as: Who is deemed as “needy” and “deserving”, and who is entrusted with the responsibility to “help”? Can “compassionate consumption” save the world? Can competition and the drive for profit inspire innovation and social equity? Richey and Ponte’s analysis helps us to become more critical readers in relation to the ways in which RED products and other forms of Brand Aid might ironically serve to further some of the social hierarchies that they purport to alleviate. Brand Aid helps us to read cause related marketing, celebrity/expertise and consumerism with new eyes, especially in relation to constructions of race, gender, sexuality and power. We are honored to have this opportunity to dialogue with Richey and Ponte, as well as with a broader online audience about our opinions, questions, impressions and critiques of the ideas discussed in their text.

More information about Amy Brown:



Twitter: @amy_eliz_brown


And questions, reflections, provocations and ideas from Amy’s Critical Writing Students

Rich Chaudhary

From what I’ve read, Brand-Aid criticizes a lot of RED’s philosophies and practices concerning what it actually does to help African HIV/AIDS patients. While I agree with you that RED and its constituent companies don’t go out of their way to help these patients, I am not truly convinced that what they’re doing is deceiving or dishonest. The seven companies in this RED initiative are, after all, capitalist corporations. Obviously their goal is to look good in the public eye and to make a profit. It’s not like what RED is going is wrong, it just may not be the most right – but that’s almost expected. So, I guess, my point is, why write a book about this topic? What is your motivation and why did you put so much effort to examine these companies and the RED initiative? Are you convinced that RED is a waste of effort and resources? Do you think that RED doesn’t serve a real purpose and that the world right now would be better off without it?

Renee Chin Lee

On RED’s website, it states that “(RED) was founded in 2006 by Bono and Bobby Shriver to get businesses and people involved in the fight against AIDS.” The founders claim that they want the public to get involved in fighting AIDS; however, RED does not create much awareness of poverty in Africa. Instead, RED chooses to mask the desolate images of AIDS and promote its initiative more based on the cool and sexy factor of the RED cause. Why would RED do this? RED corporations simply want to maximize profit. They do not care that much about the provision of aid to Africa. If they truly cared, they would reconsider sending the money to Africa through the Global Fund which has been accused in the past of separating itself from its initiatives, leading to corruption scandals. RED makes the excuse of wanting to portray Africa as an “adventure” to eliminate negative stereotypes and cultural inferiorities; however, completely brushing over the realities of the situation to create a cool, sexy image does not teach consumers anything about African poverty and AIDS.

Advertising RED products in this way is just an attempt to target consumers who might feel uncertain about buying a product. The billboards and commercials only skim the surface of the problem enough to induce compassion from consumers, thereby justifying the supposed need to purchase RED products. But how does Scarlet Johansson wearing a sexy RED shirt raise awareness of the causes and effects of African AIDS? She only raises awareness of the RED brands, not the actual cause.

Gabby Fajnzylber

Brand Aid raises interesting points regarding how the RED campaign has reconstructed corporate social responsibility in such a way that prioritizes profits rather than the beneficiary’s needs. Undoubtedly the delivery of aid has to be improved with less of a focus on ARV drugs and a more holistic approach towards combating AIDs that takes into consideration the entire context of AIDs. However, while ARVs provide very easily quantifiable results, can’t other types of aid also be quantifiable such as number of schools built or number of places prevention activities have been initiated? The book points out that the majority of the other capital raised by the global fund comes from government. If RED aid makes up a small portion of total aid by the Global Fund, why can’t RED aid go towards ARVs, if they are in fact more easily marketable, and other aid go to other initiatives?

It is also indisputable that RED does not propagate a realistic portrayal of the AIDs issue and thus does not do much to further AIDs awareness. What is the pragmatic objective of authentic awareness and how does it better beneficiate those with AIDs? If an authentic understanding of AIDs by western consumers can in fact make a difference in helping HIV-positive people in Africa, what is a better strategy to promote this accurate understanding? With an improvement in its method of aid delivery, despite the profits RED brings to participating brands and the erroneous image of AIDs that is built by RED, doesn’t brand aid achieve its goal of raising capital for the AIDs cause? And if so, is that the wrong goal?

Aimee Knaus

As an American teenager living in the developing country of Jordan and loving fashion and shopping, I have numerous products that I purchased as “compassionate consumption.”  From the TOMs I wore everyday to school, my tote bag made my Palestinian refugees, to my paper decorations made by Nepalese women and the recycled wastebasket sitting in my room, I love it when my purchases can directly help society or the environment. I will admit that one of my favorite website is which lists many companies, each with a specific cause. However working in the Syrian refugee camp in Jordan I have seen first-hand the corruption that can occur when Western companies come in and try to alleviate a problem they know little about rather than investing in a long-term solution that would be more beneficial to the people. I am now majoring in Business and International Studies because one day I hope to search for this more valuable long-term solution. But I do feel that along with many others I am spending a long time searching. The book “Brand Aid” has shown me even further corruption in relation to corporate social responsibility and the disharmony between increasing revenues and actively helping others. I am now wondering if the same kind of corruption occurs in non-profits as well, or if their intentions motivate their means and bring about better results. I have personally worked with small non-profits in Jordan that employ locals and are making a huge impact. As someone who eventually wants to return to a third-world country and provide aid, it is my hope that there is a way to do so with less corruption so that a greater number of people can be influenced. This could be through strengthening health systems rather than providing treatment, planting gardens instead of distributing food, teaching kids to read instead of giving them a care package, or employing refugees so that they have an income rather than distributions.

Max Luo

In this critical writing seminar, we are taught the techniques of rhetoric – the structure, language, and presentation of persuasive argumentation. By definition, rhetoric deals with words and how to verbally support a claim. There are, however, many strengths to including data (numbers, figures, etc.) in an argument. One such strength is the ability to observe exactly how large or small something is. For example, I was shocked to see that (RED)’s contributions to the Global Fund was a single digit percentage of the Fund’s total recipient money. Providing specific numbers grounds the argument and provides a certain exactness that words cannot.

One of the most interesting parts of your argument (Brand Aid’s sociological implications of perpetuating the racial power relationships between the Western “savior” and Africa) lacked this “exactness” that numbers would have otherwise granted. After reading Chapter 2, I found myself asking certain questions: How large of an effect is this? Do all consumers see themselves as “saviors” of Africa? If so, to what extent? How does this impact their behavior, if at all? Clearly, it would be difficult to administer surveys to all consumers of (RED), but I am curious about the specifics of this very interesting phenomena.

Joe Maher

Great book. It’s a very interesting read. You talked about how Brand Aid is a new and totally different type of CSR initiative. Project RED obviously utilizes controversial methods in attempting to influence consumers and in portraying the struggles of African AIDS victims. However, the project also had some success in generating revenue for the Global Fund, which you acknowledge in your book. I wonder whether we could see an increase in Brand Aid as a form of CSR in the upcoming years. It would seem to be attractive to companies because it helps them grow their brand. If there is a trend towards increased Brand Aid in CSR, do you think this is good for CSR in general, or are other alternatives better for society? Finally, I wonder what changes you would prescribe in any Brand Aid program in order for it to evolve into a more responsible form of CSR? If this truly is a trend in its early stages, there surely is opportunity for a type of growth and reimagination of the concept of Brand Aid. I think the general idea is extremely powerful because it has the potential to be a sort of “winwinwin” for consumers, brands and victims. While it is obviously not at this stage right now, I wonder whether Brand Aid has the potential to become this type of powerful aid effort.

Danielle Martinez-McCormack

While Brand Aid: Shopping Well to Save the World has opened my naïve mind to the true motives of CSR, I still believe that Brand Aid is an innovative and necessary response to urgent international crises today. Businesses and corporations are in an advantageous position to provide aid to people in need and they have the ability to make a long-lasting impact on people in need. Corporations can be blamed for many of the inequalities that exist and therefore it can be considered their responsibility to give back to society.

First, businesses have all of the proper tools to raise funds to support a cause and distribute them efficiently. Unlike non-profits, corporations ideally operate under maximum efficiency and strive to maximize profits. The nature of business pushes its employees to work competitively, be resourceful, and hold themselves accountable, leading to a more organized system. I agree that RED’s marketing has led to a stigma of the “vulnerable victims” in Africa waiting for the “White Westerners” to save them at their leisure. However, I also believe that RED employs powerful marketing strategies that work to collect the most donations and consumers possible.

Second, RED has been shifting its aid strategies from a pharmaceutical focused temporary solution, to a more long-term impact. For example, RED’s new “Impact Map” ( states that in Rwanda “Funding focuses on expanding and strengthening existing HIV facilities and rolling out a national prevention and treatment education program.” While these education and health system based initiatives are less measurable than the distribution of ARV medication, they will carry a greater impact on societies. RED has also done away with its “Impact Calculator”. These changes signal that RED is less concerned with marketing its measurable impact and more focused on making a real change. Do these changes within RED change your opinion of the effectiveness of the campaign?

Taylor Nauden

I am very interested in corporate philanthropy and corporate social responsibility, which motivated me to take the class that we are in. I believe that corporations should make an efficient effort to helping out the community around them. Before reading this book, I looked at RED, TOMS, and other corporations who have engaged in helping social causes with happiness that they are using their business for good. I have RED and TOMS products and felt good that I was helping out other communities while also buying pleasing products, which I would have bought even if they did not have the social cause attached to them.

After reading this book, I have been able to see that the processes and procedures that some of these corporations participate in limit the effectiveness of their actions. Everything that they portray may be a “virtualism” that they bring about in order to garner consumers’ attentions.         I do agree that these virtualisms and distances that are thereby created between the Western consumers and the distant “others” has a consequence of dehumanizing other individuals and presenting them as people of desperate need of our help. One thing that I do ask, though, is that is there any other way to get Western consumers’ attention? Corporations are businesses and therefore have to effectively market their products and brands in order to get consumers to do what they want them to do. They know what consumers need to be shown that makes them want to take action. I think one important aspect that can help change these portrayals of virtualisms and show consumers the difference between virtual and reality is education. Through educating the consumer about the facts about other countries, they are able to understand what they could do to help without having corporations tell them what they should or should not do, as if through buying a product is the easiest and most effective way to engage in philanthropy.

Lastly, through educating the people of the corporations about the reasons why and how certain causes are going on in other countries, they are able to provide better well-rounded solutions to improving societies in other countries. For example, RED only provides ARV pills for treatment which is one simple solution, but doesn’t look at society as a whole and try to figure out why AIDS is so prominent in Africa so they can focus on treatments and programs that focus on the bigger picture so that the entire society can improve.

My main questions that I’m trying to get at here are that if people are going to buy certain items anyway, why shouldn’t they buy one that is in support of a good cause? Would American citizens still buy these items if they weren’t marketed the way they are now? And lastly, what do you think about alternative ways to incorporate social responsibility into corporations since their main objective will always be to make a profit?

Christopher Orsinger

Although companies engaging in brand aid initiatives like Product RED righteously earn the “cool” factor, there are significantly more impactful – yet still financially beneficial – CSR measures a firm can undertake. In line with Milton Friedman’s stakeholder theory, a firm first and foremost has an obligation to stakeholders affected by its business operations, and by working together with groups that are naturally close to the business, more impact can be made.

For example, through its Fairtrade Initiative, Starbucks has been able to source coffee that is responsibly grown and ethically traded, helping to protect the environment and livelihood of coffee farmers around the world. In another example, through its Food With Integrity initiative, Chipotle has aimed to use meat from animals raised without the use of antibiotics or added hormones, in addition to sourcing local and organic produce in support of family farmers. Given that these firms are experts within their industry and line of business, they are able to directly help out and improve the lives of suppliers, customers, and protect the environment.

Additionally, there is a legitimate, more powerful and measurable business case for traditional CSR versus initiatives like Product RED. Revenue from Product RED is marginal at best, while companies claim to benefit more greatly from added brand value and consumer perception. Meanwhile, studies show share price, and therefore equity value of firms, react positively to strong CSR initiatives and behavior, especially in today’s day and age of business where taking care of all stakeholders is tremendously important.

Some would argue that if companies simply concern themselves with their own stakeholders, there would be no firm that would take responsibility for addressing humanitarian issues happening around the globe, such as AIDS in Africa. However, keeping consistent with the belief in Friedman’s stakeholder theory, I believe it should be pharmaceutical companies who should bear the responsibility, given their expertise and access to drugs and distribution channels. This avoids some of the critique raised against Product RED, given their lack of long-term solution and misguided partnership with the Global Fund.

Johnson Tan

Africa is distant from the United States, but it seems closer to America due to the

many forms of aid that are provided. Africa is viewed as poor and unstructured. However, there is a reason that they are not as well developed as many other areas are. Western impact is the reason that Africa cannot flourish on its own. In the past, Westerners invaded African land for a long period of time. During that time period, Westerners made a persistent effort to strip Africa of most of its resources. Therefore, Africa was left with nothing but corruption and poverty. Due to this deep scar in Africa’s history, their economy is still struggling to grow.

Though it was mainly the fault of the Westerners, there is still the idea that some Africans were the ones who aided in the Western imperialism. The trade made between the Westerners and Africans caused the Westerners to gain interest in colonizing in Africa. Even some say that it is more due to Africa’s corruption that caused the colonization to occur.

Gautham Venkatesan

The ideology of campaigns such as RED promoting the expansion of the consumption sector rather than prioritizing the needs of the beneficiary countries and relief efforts towards said countries is a debatable topic. I agree with the concept that the bridge between capitalist goals and global issues is gradually increasing due to shifts in focus during relief efforts. A RED campaign prioritizes the promotion of brands over the humanitarian cause of the campaign however these negative aspects of such campaigns are usually unaware to a modern day consumer. There is an immediate need for a change to the status quo by reforming the current system of relief campaigns to bring about a shift from production goals to solving global issues. RED advocates cultural logics that establish an existing global inequality in terms of race, class and gender while actively endorses consumer engagement to mitigate their negative effects, a phenomenon that you referred to as “the rock man’s burden”. An interesting opinion I came across in the book was RED’s usage of virtual communities such as blogs and social networking sites that presents prescriptive rather than expressive versions of reality of HIV/AIDS in Africa.

Granted there are certain flaws in the current aid celebrity campaigns but I would argue that such campaigns are able to achieve goals in terms of outreach and raising awareness. I believe that the clever usage of celebrities to represent brands allows companies to involve a much larger consumer base for potential contributions and donations. I will concede that the amount of funds raised from these campaigns is insignificant at times. However that does not take away the fact that there is a high probability that the middle class consumer base would have not participated/contributed in any manner at all but through campaigns such as RED that involve celebrity endorsement of brands. My question is that there are few available options to have a similar outreach achieved by those campaigns that involve aid celebrities, and how else would one go about in achieving a respectable level of community involvement in contributing, in any possible manner, to aid related causes?

Amy Zhuo

As a business student who is aspiring to be a social entrepreneur in the retail industry, I find that “Brand Aid” has helped me to become more critical of consumer-driven aid. This business and philanthropy model was one I used to praise mindlessly, but this analysis of RED has opened my eyes to the issues of distant and disengaged corporate social responsibility. However, despite the harmful virtualism of Brand Aid, I still believe in the potential of bridging public and private interests to achieve international humanitarian goals.

The notion of post-humanitarianism is based upon the premise that in the modern Western world, consumerism and selfishness are what drive our capitalistic society. From my observation of our culture and its obsession with excess wealth, excess consumption, and the constant craving for more, this premise is unfortunately true. However moral and effective true social responsibility is, it requires reliance on the goodness of humanity, which is an idealistic way of calling people to action. Thus, consumer-driven aid (or, in other words, philanthrocapitalism) presents a valuable model for future businesses to adopt. As long these private entities are not contributing to the causes of a greater issue, private aid is an important component to treating the symptoms of this issue. By adapting to the public interest of philanthropy and the private interest of profits or products, consumers and companies can work together to create positive social change.

I believe the key to improving this model is twofold:

Rather than relying on companies to be socially responsible in their production and exchange practices, governments should better enforce fair trade and acceptable factory conditions – especially when these MNCs are outsourcing their value chains. Companies’ cause-related marketing campaigns should be required to pass certain requirements (similar to the FDA approval stamp of “organic” on foods) before claiming that their proceeds are benefiting AIDs in Africa or any other issue. These requirements could include making sure that the portrayal of the beneficiaries is accurate, and that the company actually practices social responsibility in every aspect.
Two questions I remain curious about are:

How does a consumer differentiate between companies that are practicing selfish Brand Aid, and those that are truly trying to make a positive social impact?

Is there a current model of consumer-driven aid that is less virtualistic and superficial than Brand Aid? Are these companies sustainable?

Brooke Edwards

When purchasing a Product RED T-shirt or iPod or sunglasses, many consumers (myself included) are able to justify their expensive purchase with the gratification that they are “doing good.” Who they are helping or where or how does not matter to the consumer because they are interested in shopping not learning about humanitarianism and how to address major issues in the third world. Should it matter? For the consumers who have little interest in philanthropy, corporate philanthropy can provide a pathway for them to donate to a cause when they otherwise would not. This support of corporate philanthropy is not formulated from the desire to help the American consumer feel like they are “doing good” but instead is derived from the simple fact that some form of aid is better than no aid at all.

In a capitalistic society, it is unrealistic to expect a company to completely alter its business model to center its strategies on philanthropy. This could indeed provide an incredible amount of aid to those in poverty and potentially change the world; however, it is idealistic and impractical. A company that devotes itself purely to philanthropy at the expense of marketing to its consumers will undoubtedly fall behind potentially even being pushed out of the market altogether. Corporate philanthropy does not risk the success of the company but instead often helps it by promoting brand image and a sense of compassion. Is the exploitation of donating to a cause in order to aid a company inherently wrong? Although the simple, compassionate response would be yes, understanding that the company’s success can in turn lead to increased profit and foreign aid forces one to think again. Does it have to be wrong to focus on oneself while still helping others?

A large part of addressing this question comes from how the “others” are portrayed. Rather than giving people in Africa their own voice, (RED) and other companies like it use other mediums (such as celebrities) to provide this voice. Rather than being portrayed as individuals in a complex society, (RED) depicts its beneficiaries simply as Africans with AIDS, a completely dehumanizing, misunderstood view that is in turn absorbed by American society which internalizes this view of the African as the “sufferer.” This dehumanization and inaccurate portrayal can have extremely damaging effects on African stereotyping and race relations. The question then becomes is it worth it to exploit the images of those in need in order to attempt to help them?

Catherine Hua

Brand Aid: Big and Small and Back Again

Richey & Ponte define “Brand Aid” to be, according to their blog, “Brand + Aid Celebrity + Cause”. Product RED illustrates flaws of brand aid—namely, the failure to bring help to those in need (in this case, to those in “Africa”). The marketing strategy had the unintended consequence of marginalizing the cause, making it difficult for the target audience to relate to a distant, pity-worthy “other.”

The immediate solution to this problem is to reduce the intended scope of brand aid. Rather than tackle the issue of AIDS in Africa, what if brand aid were utilized on a local scale to find solutions to problems closer to home? For example, in order to raise funds to aid the homeless, a company that sells hats, scarves, and mittens utilizes a local prison knitting program (in which inmates knit scarves, hats, mittens, etc. as coping mechanisms), branding the inmates’ products as special editions of their own in which a portion of proceeds goes to funding nearby organizations that help the homeless get back on their feet. With proper education and campaigns from local celebrities and representatives about both programs, consumers could be educated and willing to purchase such products. Since all aspects of the production and donation process are local, it is much simpler to see any differences between the media representation and reality of the homeless people the community is helping. Furthermore, it is also a much simpler process to ensure that the funds going from the scarf and hat company are indeed put to good use. This smaller-scale form of brand aid is potentially much more effective than the large-scale methods of Product RED.

From the example above, this localized process of generating aid appears to be efficient, and has a low chance of misrepresenting those in need. Especially given the nature of the products being produced (i.e. from a prison knitting program—a non-profit program), it is even possible that there is even more profit money, which thus implies that more can be donated to the homeless, hopefully leading to a quicker resolution of the issue of homelessness in a given community. So, given that localized brand aid can be quite effective, it is most certainly possible to boil down large-scale brand and transform local communities, and it is also possible to use strategies from small-scale brand aid to improve larger initiatives, such as Product RED. Could this concept actually tackle local and global problems?

Seung Ho Lee

Reading Brand Aid: Shopping Well to Save the World was for me the first time I was introduced to brand aid and the RED initiative. The whole idea quickly intrigued me, an economics major, as I saw it as an interesting attempt to tackle the third of the three basic questions of economics, “For whom are the goods produced?” A holistic evaluation of the campaign provided by the authors was a great opportunity for me to think about the various issues surrounding brand aid.

The most interesting point made was the one about whether the RED initiative is apt for solving the fundamental problem. Firms only focus on the visible results such as the distribution of pills and their marketing strategy often sway consumers’ attention from the root cause of the whole problem. The criticisms were all the more valid and I began to believe that brand aid will not be able to fully replace traditional forms of philanthropy.

Then again, I also want to know what the authors think about brand aid themselves. It seems throughout the book that they wish to maintain a rather objective stance on brand aid, offering not only criticisms but also the progress that RED has made so far. And I also see that brand aid is an innovative funding mechanism in that it gives the firms the incentive to participate in philanthropy and also allow consumers, the general public, to more easily provide help to those suffering in distance. What would be some improvements we can make in the way that current brand aids work? What would be an ideal form of legitimate and effective brand aid?

Advantages of brand aid clearly exist, and if we can find a way to keep them while correcting the wrongs, that will definitely be a way to go.

Lucy Li

While reading the book, Brand Aid by Lisa Ann Richey and Stefano Ponte, I was struck by the concept of the “distant others” and their inability to change their own situation while the “white man” has the supposed responsibility to tell their story to the world. Similar to the article Humanitarianism as a Politics of Life by Didier Fassin, the concept of privilege and power comes into play even though it acts unassumingly. The article talks of people in power having the ability to deem some lives more important than others, through their actions though that might not necessarily be the intent. Project RED paints the picture of women and children needing to be “saved” through ARV pills, while ignoring the gender issues as well as true conditions in Africa. It fails to show a holistic view, but instead chooses to sell a concept to gain profit and funds. By doing so, project RED is deeming the lives of these women and children to be more important than others. This concept is furthered by the fact that project RED chooses which countries the aid goes to, providing aid to only efficient programs. Though this is efficient, it allows RED to be responsible for the decisions of who to save and who is “worthy of saving.”

The connection of Africa being a narrative that needs to be told is also consistent with Fassin’s idea that humanitarian organizations provide third person accounts of the situation in Africa since they are the only ones able to. The image is painted based on suffering and harm, similar to the RED campaign and its role in images through the advertisements. For the RED advertisement campaign, through the use of models posing for high end magazines, the cause is promoted as cool with Africa being “exotic.”  Yet at the same time RED promotes the images of victims, painting the view that ARVs can change their lives, through really it is only a part of the problem. Like the book states, project RED fails to show the nuances in the conditions of their “victims” along with their struggles and achievements. Instead it is simply a power demonstration of how the “white man” can play savior in a distant world with lack.

Julia Peng

Brand Aid has managed to successfully highlight the overwhelming impact professional marketing can have on our society – from establishing the image of the entirety of Africa as being poor, disease-ridden and war-torn, to persuading people to believe that their $0.40 can save a life per day. Despite all the analysis critiquing the project however, I still believe that there is no harm in participating in brand-aid and philanthrocapitalism as long as it benefits people overseas.

While brand-aid does manage to add a degree of disengagement amongst the consumer base, I think this “disengagement” is not only prevalent in the consumer philanthropy world, but rather a trend we have observed alongside the advancements in technology and the digital world.

Furthermore, if people in the Western world will buy a Gap shirt anyways, what’s the harm in companies agreeing to donate part of their revenue towards a cause, no matter how distant? Speaking from a economic and utilitarian perspective, initiatives like Project RED are actually pareto superior, in that the Western consumer receives their t-shirt, and people in the developing world receive some form of aid. Through utilitarian lens, this is better than the alternative, which is when the Western consumer buys the Gap t-shirt, and none of the funds go towards people in need. I was wondering what your thoughts are on this specific topic. In your opinion, what is the harm in this thread of thinking, if at all? Is philanthrocapitalism not just the next step in philanthropy?

Adam Schwartz

I am a current senior at the University of Pennsylvania studying your critique of Product RED and similar brand aid initiatives. First, I just wanted to thank you for exposing the fallacies of Corporate Social Responsibility. Too many corporations have taken on new programs aimed at “doing good” for society. As you point out in Chapter 4: “Hard Commerce: Corporate Social Responsibility for Distant Others,” most of those programs are merely marketing schemes that, on the surface, appear to be doing social good, but in reality aren’t resolving much at all. In my opinion, this phenomenon has become an epidemic in the business world. Too many corporations invoke social responsibility to boost their triple bottom line without really doing much at all. Many CSR corporations are disengaged from the problem they claim to aid and that brings me to my next concern.

There is no doubt that the Product RED Movement is growing every year. Just recently, Bank of America partnered with Product RED, and soon enough more and more corporations will follow suit. Your historical analysis of the development of CSR paints a dire picture for the future. Sadly, it seems as if corporate social responsibility is heading down a treacherous path that has no true meaning. More Brand Aid initiatives will undoubtedly arise, and as a result, the meaning behind true social responsibility will be lost.

Lastly, I greatly appreciate your ability to see through all the smoke that Product RED creates. I completely agree that Product RED and its affiliated partners are absurdly hypocritical. For instance, how could GAP clothing and Product RED say they are doing “good for society” when the working and living conditions of those in GAP’s sweatshops are in violation of international human rights standards? It seems to me that this new model of CSR isn’t really CSR at all; it’s just creative marketing.

I do have a couple of quick questions to ask:

How do we stop corporations from using the CSR-tag to solely boost their own social standing?  It has become obvious that many CSR initiatives have lost touch with the original meaning of what CSR is all about.

Do you think that traditional methods of aid, either public or private, will soon be a thing of the past? With the rise of Brand Aid initiatives there is a larger diffusion of responsibility to help out in foreign aid, and as result individuals, particular wealthy philanthropists, will no longer feel a need to be as involved.

Abbie Starker

While product RED has been criticized for a number of reasons like virtualizing Africa, sending money to corrupt institutions, and being distant and disengaged, not many people look closely at the products that RED sells. RED products range from as cheap as a greeting card or a t-shirt to as expensive and luxurious as Belvedere vodka, iPods, and iPads.  Consumers purchase these costly and unnecessary items with little thought and a sense of satisfaction in knowing that they “gave back” with their purchase. This sense of fulfillment is not exclusive to the luxury items on the RED product list and is probably universal to all RED purchases. However, the cards and t-shirts do far less damage than the iPods, alcohol, and other pricey items.

First of all, most of the products that RED sells are items that many Africans can never dream of having. Many of the countries that receive aid from RED have a majority of citizens who do not even have their most basic needs—let alone their wants—met.  Yet RED completely deemphasizes this fact by pushing extravagant products toward western consumers. It is hypocritical and contradictory that RED does not address many basic problems in the health systems in African nations and the fact that 345 million people in Africa do not have access to clean water, yet they encourage westerners to buy high tech devices and alcoholic beverages.

Not only do the luxury items distract consumers from many real problems, but it further widens the gap between those being helped and those who claim they are helping. Consumers can more easily turn the other cheek and ignore those suffering in Africa with the help of their new iPods and vodka. The luxury items create a sense of complacency that could be avoided. Rather than selling items completely unrelated to AIDS in Africa, RED could sell items related to AIDS prevention like condoms, or items that many Africans go without like water bottles and school supplies. Because these items are much cheaper than iPods and vodka, RED could sell them for double the price and use the extra money to provide Africans with duplicate supplies.

Many would argue that the expensive items sold through RED raise more money and increase the standard of living for everyone, but the importance of being transparent and informative about the situation in Africa far outweighs this potential benefit. If RED really wants to make a difference and fight AIDS, they need inform people, inspire people, and start closing the gap between the west and the rest rather than expand it.

Ken Teoh

After reading the book, the one thing that strikes me most is how the success of the RED campaign hinges on harnessing the desires of everyday Western people to make a difference in this world – buying a RED product allows me to save a life, hence I choose RED products over non-RED ones. This “business model” raises a question of sustainability.

RED depends heavily on the lasting appeal of its brand. This, to me, seems like a very unreliable model. Although I believe that everyone usually has an idea of how this world can be made a better place, the idea does not necessarily translate into providing ARV’s to African AIDs victims. I am certainly not discounting that the fact that people with different priorities would also be willing to support the RED cause, however I am rather doubtful about whether they will be willing to do it on a continual basis. This matters because each time a consumer decides to support RED, she is making a conscious decision to shift her purchase from a non-RED product to a RED product. Perhaps that would be plausible for one product, but would a consumer be willing to purchase multiple RED products, over an extended period of time? To phrase it another way, I might be willing to buy a (RED) iPod, but would I be willing to have a house filled with (RED) products? For that to work, it would require consumers to be really dedicated to the cause that RED is advocating for.

RED seems to be employing a marketing technique meant for a one-off cause related campaign, for a campaign that intends to last, or at least supports a cause that requires a dedicated stream of contributions. This is an unsustainable method because popularity of a brand requires there to be constant updates and changes. The AIDS initiative does not need constant updates and changes; it requires support that comes in regularly and continually.

Pallavi Wakharkar

I am a first-year student at the University of Pennsylvania, and currently, we are studying your book in a critical writing seminar. I have two main questions that I would like to propose.

First of all, I understand and agree with your argument with regards to Brand Aid. You argue that RED consumers are too distanced from their African beneficiaries to truly understand their plight and that many RED companies practice disengaged CSR (corporate social responsibility). This all may be true—and maybe it’s just the optimist in me—but I think that the disengaged type of CSR that RED practices is still better than nothing. There are many corporations out there who practice literally no philanthropy, and although RED companies like Armani only donate a meager 8% of their RED product sales to the Global Fund, that is still better than no action at all. I would argue that although RED and Brand Aid in general is deeply flawed, it is still better than no corporate philanthropic action at all.

As for my second question… I just read your chapter about “hard commerce” in which you put forth in detail the argument that RED practices disengaged CSR. Furthermore, you argue that most RED corporations hardly change their business model when they align with RED—RED is just a way for them to look better without acting better. I wonder if you think that most corporations who practice philanthropy are simply looking better without acting better. Are there any corporations out there—RED or otherwise—that have actively changed their business models in a very engaged fashion with regards to philanthropic causes?

Dominick Wright

To me, the most interesting thing about Product RED is the lack of transparency shown on the part of the companies involved. As you mentioned in your book, all the RED companies were extremely reluctant to disclose how much money they actually raise through their partnership with RED and how exactly they go about doing it. Of course, it is entirely possible that these companies simply don’t want prying eyes scrutinizing their every financial move. However, the fact that they do not publish details about their contributions to charity, something that would probably give them good media attention, seems a bit strange.

Another interesting aspect of RED is the way it boosts a brand’s public image. Western consumers find it easy to get behind a product that they are told supports a good cause. It makes sense then that consumers would praise a company that allows them to support a good cause through a partnership such as RED. With this in mind, it would not be hard to see how a company’s involvement with RED benefits them more than it benefits Africans with AIDS. Although it would be impossible to find out the actual truth, it would be interesting to see the motives and deliberations within companies as they consider joining with RED.


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