Challenging Dogma - Spring 2008

...Using social sciences to improve the practice of public health

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Product(RED): An Overindulgence of America’s Consumerist Sweet Tooth Fails to Promote Education and Social Change- Melissa Gambatese

What is Product(RED)?
The Product(RED) campaign was started by singer Bono and Chairman of Debt, AIDS, Trade in Africa (DATA) Bobby Shriver, with the intention of raising awareness and money for the Global Fund, a world-wide collaboration of governments, the public and private sectors and communities affected by AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria that aims to raise, manage and distribute money to areas of greatest need (1). To raise money through their campaign, Bono and Shriver enlisted the help of popular companies like GAP, Apple and Microsoft to produce products to be sold under the Product(RED) name. A percentage of the sale of each of these items is given to the Global Fund. The Global Fund then uses the money to help mainly women and children in Africa who are infected with or affected by HIV/AIDS in African countries (2).
In theory, Product(RED) is a powerful capitalist tool based on cause-marketing theory that could be used to raise awareness and money for an increasingly urgent health problem. While research on this campaign and other similar campaigns is lacking, this campaign falls short in three distinct ways. Primarily, it promotes consumerism in place of activism and direct philanthropic action. In addition, the campaign overly relies on framing, agenda-setting and social marketing theories to institute social change without providing the consumer with the necessary tools that he or she needs to do so. Lastly, there are better alternative campaign ideas that focus on direct donation and the encouragement of education and awareness over the use of the sale of products to raise money. In the end, the Product(RED) campaign must be renovated to include deeper, more prominent aspects of education and awareness, and a lesser emphasis on the purchase of non-essential items as a way of making an impact on a large-scale public health problem.
Consumerism and Philanthropy Don’t Always Mix
The Product(RED) campaign is based on a facet of corporate social responsibility (CSR) called cause-related marketing. According to Trimble and Rifon, cause-related marketing theory (CRM) “joins a corporation together with a specific cause, or a not-for-profit organization (NPO) that is affiliated with that cause.” (3) Once this link between corporation and cause is created, the corporation establishes a marketing campaign. Theoretically, the root of this campaign is a goal to educate and raise awareness within the consumers about the cause in order to benefit the NPO while “simultaneously benefiting the corporation” (3). The difference between this type of corporate philanthropy and direct corporate donation is that, in CRM, the corporation does not make a donation unless the consumers buy products that have been linked to the cause (3). In other words, “revenue producing activities,” such as the sale of a product or service, must first occur before the donation of money to the cause by the company.
Trimble and Rifon also explain that if the company fits well with the cause it has chosen to team with, the consumer is more likely to view this corporation in a positive light and therefore, purchase its products or services. Similarly, in his article, “Patina of Philanthropy,” Mark Rosenman declares that cause-related marketing “ties consumer’s desires to see a social good with the corporations’ desires to see higher profits” (4). In other words, linkage to a familiar, popular cause increases income for the corporation by mentally tying the corporation to a positive cause or social good in the consumer’s mind. The researchers warn, however, that campaigns based on CRM, like Product(RED), “do not always benefit the NPO, but often benefit the corporate donor” (3), an idea which many consumers are not aware of. Much criticism surrounding the Product(RED) campaign stems from the idea that the process of money flow from consumer to Global Fund to NGOs in Africa is not transparent, and that it cannot be said whether the money that Product(RED) is contributing to the Global Fund is actually going to programs for HIV/AIDS directly. According to the New York Times, the money raised by the Product(RED) campaign, which makes up less than 2 percent of the Global Fund’s total budget, simply allows the Global Fund to shift money internally to other programs and may not actually benefit HIV/AIDS programs (5). In addition, the Times uncovers a shocking secret; “Red’s contributions also do not necessarily go to the countries hardest hit by HIV and AIDS; they only go to the programs with proven success records” (5). While the money is supporting successful, proven programs, little money is trickling down into smaller, grassroots interventions that could have larger impacts in the future if provided with enough funding.
In the end, the Product(RED) focuses mostly on increasing short-term sales revenue, rather than encouraging long term, direct social change at the hands of the consumer (6). The campaign allows companies to market themselves as socially involved in order to increase sales. While money is being donated to the Global Fund, the path it takes to trickle down within the Fund is ambiguous and unknown to the consumer.
Too Much Agenda, Not Enough Efficacy
Health behavior models that are alternative to traditional models can be extremely successful in encouraging groups of individuals to change their behavior for the better (7). Agenda-setting, framing and social marketing theories utilize the tools and techniques of consumer advertising to get the public’s attention on certain issues. The CRM approach, which is the foundation of the Product(RED) campaign, employs these alternative models to ensure that consumers will buy products. However, these alternative models can often fail to provide groups of individuals with the tools they need to support a specific cause outside of the campaign.
According to a review of Albert Bandura’s Social Cognitive Theory, the model places emphasis on cognitive, reflective processes in which humans make decisions. A traditional model, Social Cognitive Theory highlights the fact that humans are not passive beings, but rather are “self-organizing, proactive, self-reflecting and self-regulating” (8). In addition, the model argues that are individuals are not merely shaped by their environment; instead, humans make decisions by combining environmental, personal and behavioral factors together (8).
The Product(RED) campaign and its use of consumerism attempts to use this nuance of human decision-making to its advantage by skewing the perception of its customers and increasing the effect that environmental factors have in proactive decision-making. Using Bandura’s model, when an individual wishes to contribute to a charitable organization, he/she proactively utilizes his/her environmental, personal and behavioral factors to make the decision (8). However, by putting products in the middle of this decision of which charity to choose, the individual is forced to take additional steps before he/she reaches a decision about the charity. First, the individual must evaluate the corporation that is tied to the charity. Secondly, the individual must consider the type of product being sold and how much of the cost of the product will be donated. Lastly, the individual then considers the charity that will hopefully benefit from the sale of the product. By adding in these extra steps, the Product(RED) campaign shifts the focus of proactive decision-making from the actual charity and its cause and onto the value of the corporation and its product. By skewing the process, the selection of a charity is secondary and ultimately passive, because the corporation makes the decision as to where the money goes.
Most importantly, however, is how the Product(RED) campaign does nothing to support the concept of self-efficacy, an idea that is central to the social cognitive model (8). Self-efficacy refers to an individual’s beliefs that their actions can lead to certain desired changes in their behavior (8). Self-efficacy also states that if an individual does not believe that their actions will produce the desired outcome, their motivation to act to achieve this desired outcome is minimal (8).
CRM does not provide consumers the tools they need to directly contribute to or evoke social change (9). Rather than emphasize education, awareness around issues and what one can do to contribute, CRM theory simply focuses on consumerism. Consumerism is not what solves problems, however. Richard Kim of urges campaigns such as Product(RED) to “spare [him] the fantasy that shopping till you drop somehow affects radical change” (10). In Kim’s article, Shopping is Not Sharing, he makes the argument that sustainability and success of continuous charitable aid cannot hinge on something as transient as consumerism (10). Consumerism does not empower the consumer to become actively involved in a social cause. It does not inspire advocacy or a feeling of self-efficacy in battling public health issues directly, as Bandura so persistently emphasized as crucial to successfully changing behavior.
In addition, Product(RED) does not provide alternatives for individuals who cannot afford to purchase products in order to donate. Many of the Product(RED) products are expensive, which may be a huge barrier to participation in social change or charity donation for a consumer with little money. Confidence in the ability to donate can be negatively affected, lowering a feeling of self-efficacy and many individuals may not have the motivation to look elsewhere for more economical ways to donate.
Without providing the tools to increase the consumer’s confidence that their actions are actually making a difference, Product(RED) cannot hope to create a sustainable flow of aid to the Global Fund.
Buy(LESS), Give and Learn More
Despite all of the criticism surrounding the Product(RED) campaign, several alternatives have surfaced that highlight areas in which we can improve upon and make better cause-related marketing campaigns. The Buy(LESS) campaign, a parody of the Product(RED) campaign, along with the (RE) campaign encourage individuals to donate directly to charities instead of buying products from which only a small percentage of profits are sent to the recipient (11, 12).
On its website homepage, Buy(LESS) invites potential donors to join them in “rejecting the tired notion that shopping is a reasonable response to human suffering” (11). In addition to the mission of Buy(LESS), individuals can find links to hundreds of charities that deal with a wide range of public health problems ranging from HIV/AIDS to hunger, Alzheimer’s disease and services for refugees. The money donated on the website goes directly to these charities, and no products are sold. There is also an option to recommend a charity to be posted on the Buy(LESS) website.
The (RE) campaign is another alternative to the Product(RED) campaign that seeks to “raise awareness for AIDS in Africa, encourage conscious consumption, and provide a means of involvement for those unwilling or unable to buy Product(RED) products” (12). Three choices are presented to the individual donor: donate through the purchase of re-used thrift shop t-shirts, skip purchasing and donate directly to a charity what you would have paid for a product, or donate red items that can be auctioned off to raise money for charity (12). All three options encourage conscious consumption and reduce the prominence of a middle man in donating to a cause. One hundred percent of proceeds go directly to grassroots organizations at the community level, rather than a global organization, which may not use the funds to directly impact HIV/AIDS programs. This campaign engages consumers in evaluating their own lives and reusing the things they already own to make an impact on a public health problem.
The development of alternative programs such as these is only one solution. If Product(RED) is going to remain a major public health campaign, it must be improved upon. In the article, Building a Better (RED), Jonathan Greenblatt of WorldChanging Newsletter, outlines specific improvements that would help to make Product(RED) a more sustainable, more proactive choice for the consumer. His suggestions include providing a tool with which consumers could track the amount of dollars that each product is raising and a mechanism with which consumers could vote on products they think should join Product(RED) (13). Greenblatt heavily emphasizes his last suggestion in which he challenges Product(RED) to emphasize “education as much as fashion and create channels that allow its consumers to learn more about the issues and get engaged in addressing them” (13). In addition, he praises Product(RED) in that it is based on theory that could potentially greatly excite a young generation of potential donors to make a huge impact on their world.
A Shift in Focus
Perhaps instead of focusing the criticism on what Product(RED) does wrong, the attention should be on what Product(RED) can do right and has the potential to do right, Greenblatt suggests (13). By incorporating educational tools, such as informational brochures next to product displays, information about other HIV/AIDS fundraisers and charities and more information on the dynamic of the Global Fund and similar organizations, Product(RED) has the great potential to leverage capitalism to spark activism and leadership in the up and coming generation.
1. The Global Fund. How the Fund Works.
2. Product(RED). What RED is.
3. Trimble CS, Rifon, NJ. "Consumer perceptions of compatibility in cause-
related marketing messages", International Journal of Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Marketing, Vol.11, No. 1, 2006.
4. Rosenman M. Patina of Philanthropy. Staford Social Innovation Review, 2008.
5.Nixon R. Bottom Line for (RED). The New York Times.
6. Polonsky M. Linking sponsorship and cause related marketing: Complementaries and conflicts. European Journal of Marketing, 2000.
7. Edberg, Mark. Communications Theory. Essentials of Health Behavior: Social and Behavioral Theory in Public Health. Chapter 6, pg. 65-76. 2007.
8. Pajares F. Overview of social cognitive theory and of self-efficacy.
9. Lafferty BA, Goldsmith RE. Cause-brand alliances: does the cause help the brand of does the brand help the cause? Journal of Business Research, 2005.
10. Kim R. Shopping is Not Sharing. The Nation,
11. Buy(LESS).
12. (RE).
13. Greenblatt J. Building a Better (RED). WorldChanging Newsletter.

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