Why the Grouse About the RED Campaign

The red grouse (lagopus lagopus) is a middling plump game bird with a hook-tipped bill. It flies up suddenly from the heather, its pale-feathered legs and feet flying, while it calls with a rapid, explosive noise that sounds like "go-back, go-back."

Sounds a like the grousing about the RED campaign. Only a recluse could not know about RED, as luminaries like Bono, Oprah and Spielberg have talked it up and supermodel Christy Turlington has served as its poster girl, sitting unperturbed in her RED dress. Campaign sponsors Apple, Gap Inc., Motorola and Sprint promote their RED products with advertising and then provide flyers in their stores about the campaign beneficiary - the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria in Africa.

Maybe from envy of RED's success, the "go-back, go-back" call emerged explosively in the first March issue of Advertising Age. Its cover story says the RED campaign cost $100 million and yielded a disappointing $18 million return for the year since the first Gap RED tee shirt went on sale in London.

The facts appear to be different: (1) The advertising and related costs were less than $40 million worldwide, according to the UK Independent. (2) Profits from the campaign came to about $50 million, and the campaign has given $25 million to the Global Fund, five times what the private sector gave to the Global Fund in the previous four years. (3) The U.S. campaign didn't start until mid-October 2006, so the returns are for only five months.

But quoted complaints about the RED campaign don't depend at all on which way the RED numbers go. For example, a Cincinnati professor is quoted as worrying that "business is taking on the patina of philanthropy and crowding out philanthropic activity." At the same time he objects that RED "benefits the for-profit partners much more than the charitable causes." I was trying to understand his problem and then it came to me: These guys just don't like corporations poaching on nonprofit turf.

Well now, isn't this a bird of a different feather? Some activists see corporate money muscling in on the world of charitable causes. What's their beef, as it were?

1. Is it unethical to use causes to promote brands? For 20 years people have been buying Aveda shampoo to reduce toxic chemicals or Body Shop cosmetics to help indigenous peoples. Tying a brand to a cause is not new. The cause is simply an ingredient in what the consumer understands to be part of the brand. The real ethical issue is whether or not the cause actually benefits from sale of the product. Since the RED campaign is reportedly transferring half its profits to the Global Fund, it is doing what it promised.

2. Is it wrong for the RED campaign to unite several brands behind a single philanthropy? The aggregation of different brands behind the campaign is what makes it unique. But it worries some. Is the fact that RED prices are higher anti-consumer? Or does it just create a new market niche? Collusion doesn't seem an issue here because product lines offered by the different companies are different, and non-RED goods remain on sale.

3. Are corporate advertising budgets just too influential? If corporate advertising is seen as a problem because of its size, the finger should be pointed first at self-interested corporate advertising, not the RED campaign. RED should get credit for generating money that will substantially expand anti-AIDS programs in Africa, where 5,500 lives are lost each day to AIDS (more than two-thirds of the global total of daily AIDS deaths).

4. Does offering a cause-related product reduce charitable giving to the cause? In economic terms, is the RED campaign a complement to private charity or a substitute for it? The theme of the anti-RED Buy Less Crap website is that buying crowds out giving. But it just ain't so. The RED website announces data showing that because the campaign contributes to public understanding of the AIDS issues in Africa, people are giving more money to this charity than less.

5. Finally, and most essentially, is the money going to the wrong cause? The underlying problem for critics may be that they don't like the RED cause. Is too much money going out of the United States? Is Africa right now a bottomless pit? Is too much going to HIV/AIDS programs? But if other causes feel they deserve more attention, then they should make their case better in the marketplace of worthy philanthropic objects. They should find their own innovative sources of support, not try to undermine the ones that have succeeded. It's not a zero-sum game.

These issues are fundamental and won't go away. In the meantime, the promoters of RED should be pleased with their success. RED is a lot better than more African dead.