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Friday, March 31, 2006

Bono is a Tool

Bono's latest attempt to save the world is through the power of consumerism and credit card debt. He has allied himself with The Gap, Armani, Converse, and American Express, among others, in a "Product Red" campaign to eliminate poverty through the purchase of designer clothing and other luxury goods (and with a special red American Express card that is "designed to eliminate HIV in Africa").

Good intentions aside, the folly of Bono's plans to end the problems of hunger and poverty by working through some of the very neoliberal institutions that inflame and sustain those problems has been pretty well documented. But the "Product Red" campaign looks like a new gold standard for cynical, corporate ploys designed to extract money from consumers hoping to make a difference by buying something.

The latest issue of Rock & Rap Confidential spells all this out in a cheerfully muckraking article, pulling no punches. The story does not seem to be available online, so I've reproduced it here from their email newsletter, for your edification:
In January, Bono announced his latest campaign to save the poor through capitalism--or rather, the other way around. This is Red, a marketing scam which finds the increasingly deranged U2 frontman in business with Nike Converse, The Gap, Giorgio Armani and American Express. Red products include Converse sneakers made from "African mudcloth," "vintage" Gap t-shirts, Armani wraparound sunglasses, and a red American Express card. The companies will donate "a portion" of their profits to fighting AIDS in Africa, the continent for whose poor Bono claims to be the spokesman. This portion is for the most part unspecified (American Express promises 1% of spending). Nor is it specified whether Bono takes a cut--presumably he would be crowing if he weren't, as he did when U2 pimped iPods for free.

"It's just a couple of degrees from becoming a Saturday Night Live skit," says Noel Beasley of the UNITE/HERE textile workers union. "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. It's ludicrous on its face."

Financial Times termed Red "the latest in a series of marketing experiments by companies worried that television advertising is losing its punch. Many of these efforts are based on the idea of using good works or services as a way to get consumer attention." The term for this, in respectable marketing circles, is "corporate social opportunity."

As Beasley said on Kick Out the Jams, Dave Marsh's Sirius radio show, "This is obviously the economic wet dream of every retailer and credit card loan shark in the world, if you can pitch consumerism and credit card debt as the salvation of the planet, while garment workers and shoe workers are starving to death and literally burning to death in horrific conditions in places like Burma and Thailand." As a member of the executive committee of the International Textile, Leather and Garment Workers Foundation, Beasley regularly monitors sweatshop and slave labor conditions around the globe, up close and in person.

Bono announced his scheme at Davos, Switzerland, where he attended the World Economic Forum, a meeting of leaders of the world's richest countries. According to Financial Times, he got the Red idea from Robert Rubin, one of the architects of Clintonomics.

Bono explicitly believes that only such powerful insiders can effect meaningful change. Capitalism controls everything, and therefore, only capitalist solutions can be "effective."

In Caracas, Venezuela, the World Social Forum took place at the same time as the Davos conference. The WSF is a meeting of leaders and activists from around the globe, from poor nations as well as rich ones. It is dedicated to the proposition that social justice occurs only when people govern themselves. The World Social Forum is the sound of some of the world's have-nots speaking for themselves, which Bono sees as counter-productive. But today, five South American nations are run by governments that believe otherwise, while the countries where schemes like Red operate, particularly Britain and the U.S., allow their populations to grow poorer and more powerless by the day.

Bono claims to be a disciple of Martin Luther King. Dr. King spoke of the "triple evils"--racism, war and poverty--as inextricably connected. He eventually concluded that opposing one of them without opposing all of them didn't make any sense. So Dr. King risked his relationship with the LBJ administration by first attacking the war in Vietnam, then starting the Poor Peoples Campaign, which raised exactly the same issues as the World Social Forum.

Bono and his ilk want to convince good-hearted folks that there is no need for the lowly to move. As long as Bono cuddles with the mighty, poverty and AIDS in Africa are being powerfully addressed. So Bono, "spokesman for the poor," meets with Bush and never mentions Iraq or New Orleans.

For the past several years, Bono has argued that African nations need to be relieved of their multibillion dollar debt to rich countries. Much of that debt has been erased. This has produced no tangible reduction in poverty. Bono has issued pronouncements about increased U.S. aid to Africa after every one of his meetings with George Bush and his senior officials. That increase never comes and, as detailed by an article last summer in the U2 fanzine Rolling Stone, the way what little aid there is gets dispensed makes conditions worse.

The 2007 World Social Forum will be held, fittingly enough, in Africa. An offshoot, the U.S. Social Forum, will be held next year in Atlanta, a symbolic return to the South which gave birth to Martin Luther King's Poor People's Campaign. Both of these massive gatherings (20,000 people are expected in Atlanta, 300,000 in Africa) will be suffused with culture, as artists from around the world speak directly with poor people, not about them from afar. The sound of a certain Irish pop star, off shilling for sweatshop syndicates and their middlemen, will be heard only faintly, if at all.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jacob Z...
And what, exactly, have YOU done for world poverty and addressing issues in Africa? Have you gotten any country to reduce its debt? Do you know for a fact that Bono is "getting a cut"? Where do people like you get off saying stuff like this? No, wait, let me guess... you represent the International Front of Courageous Journalists Opposing the Conspiracy of Rock Stars and Famous People Getting it Wrong... ? Right?...

Bono is not a saint, I guess, but I think it is important to use the influential tools of media and the entertainment business to try to get people's attention focused on the importance of human rights and development. Guys like you who sit in the sidlelines, likely somewhere comfy, taking shots from the sidelines are pathetic.

I have been in some of these places and seen how many different kinds of help are necessary, from all kinds of angles and sectors.

His work is important and gives voice to many who have no voice.


5:07 PM  
Blogger chas brown said...

I think it would only be a good deal if a percentage of the interest people will be paying to said credit card company will actually be going toward such causes. Chances are, they're donating a portion of the purchase (1%-- that is, $1 off a $100 item), and not the 13.5% apr ($13.5 over a year off that $100 item someone hasn't paid off) that they are ripping from people after those purchases. Sounds like a pretty good deal for the credit card company, not so sure about the starving folks. How about they donate that 13.5%? That would be truly selfless.

What a scam.

5:33 PM  
Blogger Jonathan said...

hey sunshine...

It's a tough problem. It's all tough. But at some point, it comes down to whether the Capitalist Method of Social Service is valid. The jury is still out on this. If you have read or seen The Corporation (recommended), then you will at least understand that this is a controversial topic. (Though I don't think it should be.)

The simple fact is that corporations must act in their own self-interest. Very few corporations have the long view and legal chutzpah to transform simple, greedy self-interest into what the utilitarians call "enlightened self-interest," which is the idea that helping others will help the self, directly or not.

These social responsibility marketing strategies are still marketing strategies at the core. We don't know whether they actually do any good, but they sure are effective at providing a warm fuzzy feeling about an entity that is neither warm nor fuzzy, but rather a profit-motivated (or in the case of many non-profits, a power-, influence-, or individual-profit- motivated entity).

Bono is not a saint. Period. I do believe that he means well, and I understand that for a "rock star" to get an audience with world leaders, that rock star must be a diplomat. But at some point, we need - need, should, must - question whether his strategy (if he has one) and his tactics (which are at least interesting) turn out to have the intended consequences.

Even if Bono is completely naive, which I'm sure he isn't, he must realize that he is lending the weight of U2's aura of social conscience to a variety of people and organizations that do not fully support his views. He must realize that there is a strong possibility that the major outcomes of his rock-star diplomacy will be increased sales to socially-conscious but gullible First World (bleh) consumers.

I manage a small C corporation (ie, we have shareholders). I am obligated by law to do everything I can to maximize profit. (The only reason I feel ok about this is the shareholders - it's a native corporation.) I can tell you that if this were a company that used marketing, I would be all over this technique. It appeals to people like me. But the chances of the situation being as clear-cut as presented are very, very low.

Criticism is necessary, especially when we're talking about ways to help people. There are a lot of ways to help people that really amount to subsidies for the entities in the supply/service chain rather than for the people intended. I see this every day because we are one of these "helper" companies, and I realize that even on a small scale it takes an enormous amount of energy to maintain each link in the chain... with every added degree of abstraction away from the root problem, there is massive associated cost.

Your defense of Bono is actually an ad hominem attack, which is a misdirection, an invalid argument. We're not discussing what Jacob has done. We're discussing a critique of Bono's method and the real question is "Does it work?" Is the critique valid? Sure, some people will use criticism to make themselves look good as part of the anti-establishment elite... but that's really not the point.

Yes, Bono can attract attention. And his message is this: "People of Rich Countries, you can help the disadvantaged by spending your money with these corporations that are required by law to maximize their profits." He's not saying "take your money or your time or both and do something good for humanity," he's saying "get cool stuff and an unspecified fraction of your money will do some unspecified good on your behalf, but it's totally subject to the whims of a corporation with no stake in the outcome advertised... because a successful outcome in this context is increased profits."

It's really just pseudokarma. The money you spend would do more good moving as directly as possible from you to your choice (your informed choice, if you really mean it) of financially assistable efforts. Instead, you are invited to feel good about a whole bunch of people taking a cut out of it first. If you want to give a percentage of every purchase to some relief effort, keep track of the money yourself and find an organization you really think is worth helping. Send them a check.

Anything else is just lazy, self-congratulatory sideline crowding. If you're going to do it, do it right or not at all - don't confuse the issue.

6:03 PM  
Blogger jacob z. said...

Ok, so maybe I was too quick to dismiss Bono's efforts with a "good intentions aside", and I probably shouldn't have been so mean to him here. He's using his rockstar voice to raise awareness about issues that urgently need discussion, so the responsible thing to do would be to acknowledge his apparent sincerity instead of just calling him names...

I hear what you're saying about how many different kinds of help are necessary. It just seems to me that working within the system to change the system is in the end just too problematic. "It's the system that changes you," as they say. I'm disillusioned with the status quo, with "reciprocal liberalization" and with the resultant capital flight in "Third World" countries... The recent debt cancellation deal is certainly a very positive step. But even this historic deal came with the usual strings attached, "free market" reforms like health, education, and budget cuts, financial and trade liberalization, and privatization.

Why don’t you hear these rock stars (Bono, Bob Geldof, etc.) addressing this neoliberal imperialism? I know I must sound pretty naive when I say this, but I want to see Bono rabble-rousing in solidarity with the protesters outside the WEF meetings, rather than inside, lending his rockstar credibility to the crooked proceedings.

For the record, I try do my bit with the "Capitalist Method of Social Service". Just a couple of months ago I bought a water buffalo through Heifer Interational for some far-off, impoverished, anonymous farmers. This is as directly as I can figure out from me to my choice of financially assistable efforts. But yeah, it's a pathetic effort, one water buffalo - or anything else I can do throwing little amounts of money in the face of such a vast, institutional problem.

10:39 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


1:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What do you think of "FairTrade"?
The producers in developing countries are almost directly profiting from encreased sales of FairTrade products in "OneWorld-Stores" in FirstWorld-Countries...

6:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ya know, I'm glad you posted your latest comment on this, it showed you were able to think things through. I know the frustration that comes from watching someone like Bono embark on a campaign like this. I totally agree that using the system to change the system is ridiculous, but that's easy for you and I as idealists who aren't nearly as involved as Bono. I mean, hell, he dedicates his LIFE to this stuff. I can't imagine the combination of hope and discouragement he faces each day.

we must realize there are two different demographics here in "changing the system." I think Bono is trying to do his best to get what he can from both and work with both. The younger generation are the ones for the most part jumping on this cause and interested in justice. You get a few older ones, but for the most part the older generation are those who have surcome to the system (and even created it). They are not going to be interested in changing it... so while you try so hard to change the younger generations mindsets about these issues (and try desparately with the older one) you throw a bone at the older generation to get what you can out of them. I think that's what this is.

5:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bono and the RED Campaign are a proven SCAM:

6:31 PM  

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