Thursday is Red Nose Day, an annual fundraiser hosted by Comic Relief USA, a charity aiming to end child poverty.
The campaign encourages people to purchase red clown noses at Walgreens for $1 and pass the proceeds on to a number of partnering charities. One can also purchase Red Nose products from Coca-Cola, M&M’s, Oreo, Dial, Skittles, and Windex, among other brands, or donate funds directly through the Red Nose Day website.
Hundreds of celebrities have signed on to support the cause, and the campaign has raised over $100 million since launching in the U.S. in 2015.
But the Red Nose Day campaign is emblematic of a prevalent yet incredibly problematic approach to philanthropy and humanitarianism: If we consume junk with no discernable use, we’ll help others we’ll never see while we continue to enjoy, and not question, our own privilege.
People purchasing these products are well-meaning, hoping their purchase will make a difference. But in turning charity into consumption, corporations and nonprofits also distract from how the current unequal global economic system contributes to the very challenges these campaigns aim to address. We well-meaning individuals consume more to save the world, inadvertently perpetuating pressing global challenges in the process.
Red Nose Day is typical of “brand aid” initiatives that engage consumers in low-cost heroism as a way to channel good intentions into politically unquestioning and commercially lucrative options. Red Nose Day’s branding is about making companies look good while also encouraging consumers to spend. Only 50¢ of that $1 Red Nose purchase goes toward the Red Nose Day Fund. The remainder goes to the manufacturer.
Several studies show this kind of charity branding works, for companies. Consumers prefer companies that support charitable causes, so corporations get involved to improve brand awareness and sales. One study demonstrated that tying branding to a cause increased profits and “increased sales for the entire line of products connected to the brand.”
“Brand aid” campaigns are about furthering corporate interest without necessarily affecting meaningful change. Add celebrities to promote the campaign, and you have a recipe for performing corporate social responsibility success.
“The takeaway is this: If someone is trying to sell you something to support a cause, say 'No, thank you.'”
Consider (Product) RED’s motto: “Eat. Drink. Shop. Live (RED). Save Lives.” U2’s leading man Bono is the chief RED mascot. From the outset, the plan was to ensure consumers felt that donating was “effortless,” simultaneously generating corporate profits and philanthropic giving. Corporations sell RED products to benefit AIDS relief in Africa, while remaining entirely disengaged from the day-to-day initiatives the campaign supports.
Never mind poor working conditions in factories manufacturing RED products. (Product) RED’s impact is measured by the number of pills it helps distribute or amount of merchandise it helps sell, rather than by how it attends to the drivers of poverty that put people at risk for HIV/AIDS in the first place.
National Breast Cancer Awareness Month is another case in point. Celebrities like Angelina Jolie, Christina Applegate and Melissa Etheridge spur awareness through their personal stories. Meanwhile, every October, a truly staggering number of pink products are available for purchase, linked to the ubiquitous Pink Ribbons. Purchase a pink garbage can, and $5 goes to breast cancer. Estée Lauder donates 20 percent of the price of their pink commemorative pin to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation. Compared to the profits made on these goods, the donations to charity are paltry.
To be sure, these products may spread public awareness of pressing issues. However, they do so through promoting problematic forms of consumerism as the means of ending disease or poverty. By focusing their branding and marketing around an important societal issue, corporations advance self-serving industrial agendas, thereby avoiding social backlash.
What proportion of the funds raised gets allocated to the people who need it, and precisely how? How are needy recipients selected, and what happens to those who are left out? Are these campaigns addressing the drivers of poverty, environmental destruction and disease, and if so, how is this being monitored?
This information is simply not available for brand aid campaigns, but these are questions that actually matter.
“By focusing their branding and marketing around an important societal issue, corporations advance self-serving industrial agendas, thereby avoiding social backlash.”
Indeed, the Breast Cancer Action organization dubbed the October breast cancer awareness campaigns industry “pinkwashing,” whereby corporations produce pink ribbon products while simultaneously investing in cancer-causing products.
Why hold governments responsible for taking care of people when individuals-cum-philanthropists can buy stuff they don’t need with the promise (backed by very little data) that it will somehow “help out”? The emphasis on charity and philanthropy draws attention away from how government policies contribute to some of the very problems, like child poverty, that philanthropy aims to address.
Worldwide strides toward a so-called free market have increased, not decreased, global inequalities. Meanwhile, governments are gutting social safety nets as they give tax breaks to corporations at home and sign free trade agreements that damage workers abroad.
These are the very structures that put people at risk. Pink trash cans, red iPhones and red noses can’t fix them, and may even make things worse.
People can also donate directly through the Red Nose Day website, and that donation, unlike the purchase of the nose, is tax deductible. Yet websites of most top-ranked charities partnering with Red Nose Day don’t disclose how much they receive from the Red Nose Day Fund, and the Red Nose Day website doesn’t list how much of the raised funds go to which charity, either. There’s little transparency.
Of course, governments aren’t going to reform themselves overnight, and until they do, philanthropy may fill some holes.
But it’s worth asking: Are these kinds of consumption-based initiatives doing the most good by prompting people to consume what they don’t need? Many charities provide essential services and are worthy of support, but they can’t replace the government’s crucial role in public services.
The takeaway is this: If someone is trying to sell you something to support a cause, say “No, thank you.” Donate directly instead. You’ll know where the money went, you’ll know you helped, and you won’t have to do the math on the cost-benefit of buying something you don’t need.
You can also do other things to end child poverty, fight disease or save the world. Give regular donations to charities you appreciate, volunteer in your own community and vote for candidates whose policies are pro-poor and pro-environment.
Noelle Sullivan is an assistant professor of instruction in global health studies at Northwestern University. Lisa Ann Richey is a visiting professor at The Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University, professor of international development studies at Roskilde University in Denmark, and co-author of the book Brand Aid: Shopping Well to Save the World.