Posted by Rob Walker on November 28, 2006
Posted Under: Consumer Behavior,Ethics

So what about this whole “Red” thing? I guess it’s called “Product Red.”

I’m sure you’ve come across it some place or other. Motorola, Apple, The Gap, and other companies have these special red products, see, and when you buy them, some of the money goes to “fight AIDS in Africa.”

There was an issue of The New Yorker not long ago that was jammed with Gap “Red” ads, most of them featuring some celebrity or other. Reader Marc A. sent me a thoughtful note about this recently, focused mostly on the Gap’s use of the Red thing:

I asked a handful of people immediately what they knew of the GAP ads, and most had it right. It was a chance to do something because most of us wring our hands in apathy. But if there’s a constant vibe out there contending “What can I do about African poverty?” which is passive and sad and I understand it because I am it, there’s also this acceptance of a campaign by GAP which is equally passive: “At least the movie stars are doing something about it.” EW!

I see where he’s coming from. I also tend to agree with him that Bono, who is involved in the Red thing, has done some good stuff, but, “why does he believe the best way to do something for Africa is by SHOPPING?”

Others have been more critical . A while back somebody forwarded me something Dave Marsh wrote in his newsletter about Red (he slammed it) in which a textile workers’ union guy was quoted saying: “It’s like if you took Bob Dylan’s ‘The Times They Are A-Changing,’ used it to pitch Rolex watches and tried to convince people that if they bought enough luxury goods they could make a revolution.”

Not only that:

Project Red is “damaging,” novelist Emily Maguire wrote in Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald, because it allows “the masses to do charity Hollywood-style. Don’t think about unpleasant things, grapple with complexities or — God forbid — change the way you live and spend. Simply go out and spoil yourself…and that’s it: You’ve done your bit.” The Toronto Star’s writer Jennifer Wells attacked the firms that participate in Project Red: “They…don’t need to sell us stuff in order to do good. They can behave like the rest of us: cut a check.”

That paragraph is from a recent Wall Street Journal editorial, which was pro-Red. Perhaps predictably, the main reason that the WSJ editorial page seems to be in favor of the Red thing is that people it perceives as liberals are against it. As the editorial admitted, Red pretty much fails at what should be the WSJ editorial page’s key test: Apart from some Gap T’s made in Africa, “Most of the cellphones, watches and other goods with the Red brand aren’t manufactured in the countries that their profits will benefit.”

That is to say, while you can make a case that the best way to help African countries, as a consumer, is to buy things that are actually products of, and thus directly build, African economies. “The energy spent persuading people to give money away might be better spent on promoting trade with poor nations, by far the best way to lift them out of poverty,” the WSJ editorial said. But somehow the editorial doesn’t really come to grips with the fact that this adds up to an argument against Red, not for it.

This matters in part to me because the “Red Manifesto” rather boldly claims that:

Red is not a charity. It is simply a business model. You buy Red stuff. We get the money. Buy the [anti-retroviral] pills and distribute them. They [Africans with AIDS] take the pills, stay alive, and continue to take care of their families…”

How is that not a charity? How is it a business model?

The project in general strikes me as an extended riff on the LiveStrong bracelets. You spend a dollar, you get something, and some money goes to a good cause. Of course, you could have given your entire dollar to the good cause, but never mind that. The upshot is that everyone agrees that the Livestrong bracelets raised a lot of money.

The theory, as I understand it, is that you’re supposed to buy the Red version of something you were going to buy anyway. There’s supposedly no markup, so simply by choosing the Red version of something, your purchase is infused with goodness.

And like Marc, I don’t really want to come across as being against something that funnels at least some money to people who need it. But the way the participating brands are using this, it seems to me, is pure marketing. It’s a way to give a “halo” (as they say in the trade) to an entire brand, without giving up profits from the brand’s entire product line. And basically the same thing goes for most of the celebrities involved: They can look like they care, and they can ride free on the publicity machine that’s part of Red’s “business model.” And now that I think about, that’s basically the same thing Red consumers get: Give me good product, and throw in a little “I care about others” with that, willya?

As Marc put it: Ew.

Further diversion may be found at MKTG Tumblr, and the Consumed Facebook page.

Reader Comments

Seems like there’s some concern over the “right” solution, and there’s some moral calculus about how emotionally involved one has to be? We have to solve hunger, but we also have to make people feel bad so they solve hunger for the “right” reasons? As the (RED) folks have said (if I recall) there are a number of different ways to be involved. I don’t know they’ve said this is the “only” way and that all the other forms of charity (if you’ll allow me to use that word) are less effective?

It’s like the paper-or-plastic debate or anything sufficiently complex. There’s no single absolute objective right answer. Should I give my dollar to an African, or should I give it to the GAP? That’s too focused a lens. If you say “give it to an African” than I (and other consumers) might say, yeah, we’ll I give locally, or I already gave, or whatever. Just because you can set up an arbitrary A is better than B decision, doesn’t mean you’ve included the necessary criteria to get the results you want. New Coke was better than Coke, wasn’t it? It was “proven” – but it didn’t take into account behavior, motivations, and the like.

Do you say “ew” to Ben and Jerry’s? Or does the product quality trump all other factors? Or odes the balance between the “helping others” and “helping myself? shift the meaning for you?

Written By Steve Portigal on November 28th, 2006 @ 12:47 pm

Fighting AIDS and poverty in Africa takes a lot more than blindly sending money to those in need. As an African I applaud Bono and others who continue to keep Africa’s problems in the public eye. However, I think there should be more programs and efforts which assist African countries in properly manufacturing and exporting goods to form a steady stream of funds. Even AIDS can become less of an epidemic if the resources are maintained by the people themselves. I recently wrote about the subject in my blog at

Written By Kofi on November 28th, 2006 @ 4:50 pm

Steve Portigal has a sound ethical argument. But here I sit, imagining my next (biannual) visit to the Gap, and I’m thinking of how it will feel to throw a red t-shirt into my basket, and I think it will feel pretty hollow. Even if it helps someone, it doesn’t seem like much of an act of humanity, does it?

Written By BW Irvine on November 28th, 2006 @ 10:04 pm

Thanks for the critical discussion of Product (Red). At a time when cause marketing seems to be gaining more and more steam, it becomes critical to ask what is actually happening behind the rosy facade. We have proposed a few alternative initiatives that sidestep the corporate model, while hopefully raising both money and awareness at Thanks.

Written By ryan/phil on November 29th, 2006 @ 12:50 pm

Thanks to all for all the smart and thoughtful feedback.

I can’t get into defending positions I didn’t actually take, so I guess I have nothing to add to what I already said.

One note about Ben & Jerry’s: I really don’t know enough about their business to comment on it one way or the other (especially since it was bought by Unilever, as I recall), but my impression is that whatever social-mindedness was involved was part of the deal from the beginning, it wasn’t something they tacked on later to give the brand some zing at a time when it was ailing. (Like, say, the Gap.) I tend to be very interested in businesses that try to build that stuff in from the start. To be clear, I’m not endorsing any such business, I’m just interested.

Written By murketing on November 30th, 2006 @ 12:12 pm

I have mostly avoided the Red thing as trivial, but was interested to read the critique. One problem with the “creates complacency” argument is that inaction is largely the status quo anyway. Schemes like this appeal to the largely unrealized desire to help, and they squeeze a little bit of good out of it, but I don’t think they prevent people from being “truly” socially active. Most of them weren’t going to do that anyway(partly because of paralysis in the face of the enormity and complexity of the issues, as Steve points out).

One additional dimension you didn’t seem to mention in the critique is that, as in the case of the LiveStrong bracelet, it’s not just that you get a little something for making your donation by corporate proxy – you get a little something you can wear as a fashion statement that shows that you (1) care and (2) have done something about it. That turns out to be a good motivator to extract a small donation from people who otherwise may not have done anything. Does the fact that a corporate intermediary gets to burnish its brand and move more product in the process nullify the benefit of the fundraising? One place I’d look for the answer to that is in what happens with the funds. If it wouldn’t have happened without the scheme, and if the scheme delivers real results, then maybe it ain’t so bad.

Written By Mark Rogers on December 13th, 2006 @ 3:51 pm
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