Thursday, April 23, 2009

Conscience Clea(Red)

I have always been rather skeptical of the product Red campaign. It just seemed like a lot of flash with little evidence of any effective aid. Like many charities, there are undoubtedly good intentions, but in practice, their effectiveness is questionable. There is significant debate surrounding charity, aid and non governmental organizations, especially with regards to Africa. The discourse ranges from whether overarching coordination is needed, to the effectiveness of the policies of such organizations as the International Committee of the Red Cross (Neutrality, Independence and Impartiality) to Dambisa Moyo's radical view that aid is dead, who states that more than a trillion dollars has gone into Africa since the 1950s without remarkable results.

The above discourses, however, generally revolve around on the ground actions. Product Red's intentions, in contrast, are to create a campaign that, by associating themselves with popular products, will make it trendy to support Africa in western countries. The idea is that the bold red colour and strong catch phrases will scream "I support Africa", allowing companies and people alike to create their own philanthropic image.

William Easterly, author of "The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good" did some quick research into the matter. Starbucks, a member of the Red Campaign, says it will donate 5 cents for every product sold using Stabucks' "Red" card (that you must also buy in addition to the coffee). Using Starbucks' own "Red" website, Easterly notes that only roughly 87 000 coffees have been bought by people using a product Red card. Doing the math, he notes that this is equal to roughly $4350. (yes, four thousand dollars). That is equal to only one quarter of the number of Starbucks stores presently in operation throughout the world (just over 16 000).

Easterly thus notes the consequent advantage product Red has given Starbucks. For roughly $4000, Starbucks can now plaster Red all over their stores, insinuating that yes, this massive multi-billion dollar company is saving Africa.

The failure of the campaign is twofold. A) though the image is everywhere (mostly due to massive amounts of advertising), it would seem that your average consumer is not buying into the idea of Red being cool. B) since the margin of charity derived from each product sold is so small, there is little money actually going towards Africa seeing as no one is buying into Red. The result is cheap (note: hyperbole) positive branding for some massive companies. Fortunately, alternative campaigns have since germinated (The Buy (Less) Crap campaign), and it seems that more and more people are growing skeptical of product Red.

In conclusion: