About a year-and-a-half ago, my mom bought me a t-shirt from The Gap as a gift. It was a faded red v-neck with the word INSPI[RED] emblazoned across the chest. My mom told me how she saw it at the store and thought of me, because the clothing was part of a new campaign that donated proceeds to fight AIDS in Africa. That’s when I first learned about the RED Campaign, and discovered that it’s much more complicated than the (PRODUCT) RED Razr and iPod commercials make it sound.

GAP (PRODUCT) RED word T $28.00

A bit of background courtesy of the (PRODUCT) RED website: “(RED) was created by Bono and Bobby Shriver, Chairman of DATA to raise awareness and money for The Global Fund by teaming up with the world’s most iconic brands to produce (PRODUCT)RED branded products. A percentage of each (PRODUCT)RED product sold is given to The Global Fund. The money helps women and children affected by HIV/AIDS in Africa.”

Here’s what a (PRODUCT) RED transaction looks like (for a larger view click on the image):

Say you bought that $28.00 t-shirt from The Gap like my mom did. You might wonder what percentage of the profit is being sent to The Global Fund. It can be tricky to find out, because the amount donated varies by item and company. An example from a New York Times article on (PRODUCT) RED observes, 

…1 percent of all spending on American Express’s Red cards goes to the fund, as do 50 percent of net profits from the sale of Gap Red items and $8.50 from each sale of aMotorola Red Motorazr.

50% of the profit donated from some items sounds pretty good, but you have to remember the benefits that participating companies reap as well. They’ve seen profits, new advertising, partnerships, and good karma come their way. Speaking of advertising, the margin between money spent on promotions and funds raised to fight AIDS, is massive. Author Ron Nixon of the aforementioned Times article observes,

In its March 2007 issue, Advertising Age magazine reported that Red companies had collectively spent as much as $100 million in advertising and raised only $18 million. Officials of the campaign said then that the companies had spent $50 million on advertising and that the amount raised was $25 million. Advertising Age stood by its article.

Even if the RED Campaign figures are correct, that’s still ridiculous. Another thing that’s disturbing is that RED and the affiliated companies refuse to disclose their revenue and total contributions. There’s absolutely nothing on the RED website related to fiscal practices. What are they hiding?

Another issue is RED’s almost complete fixation on products, brand names, and simple messages rather than awareness. Watch this (PRODUCT) RED Dell Laptop commercial and see how much you learn about the campaign. 

I bet you didn’t find out that donations end up in only three African countries: Rwanda, Ghana, and Swaziland. You probably didn’t discover that the money raised provides HIV/AIDS education, counseling and treatment or that these efforts are targeted towards women and children. The only thing I found out is that I’ll become some sort of sex goddess if I carry around a Dell. 

You can talk to me until you’re blue in the face about how RED has contributed lots of money to a deserving cause, and has impacted the lives of countless people. I’ll revert back to the evidence stated above, and contend that it’s a sad thing to promote consumerism as even a partial solution to funding the HIV/AIDS pandemic. 

If you want to do something truly charitable and socially conscious, make a direct donation to The Global Fund or a similar organization. You’ll know that your money is being put to good use rather than lining the pockets of the CEOs at American Express, Gap, and the other RED companies.