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[Pop Culture] RED menace

Is Bono’s project dead?

Greg Beato

Project (RED), Bono’s attempt to end AIDS in Africa via an orgy of sexy, self-aggrandizing consumption, celebrates its one-year anniversary in America this month, and so far, it’s been a resounding success. With partners like the Gap, Converse, Emporio Armani, Apple and Hallmark selling everything from (RED)-branded perfume that boasts a “delicate and carnal breath” to (RED)-branded greeting cards that play Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On” when you open them, the project has generated $45 million for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

It’s also generated criticism from old-guard brandinistas like Naomi Klein, who, in the early years of this long decade, helped inspire the War on Relaxed-Fit Khaki Chinos with her bestselling critique of corporate hegemony and global capitalism, No Logo. At a recent literary festival in England, and in a subsequent conversation with CNN, Klein complained about the “Bono-ization” of the protest movement and the way efforts like Project (RED) have both legitimized unfair power structures and undercut efforts at more direct, street-level activism, like the WTO protests that took place in Seattle in 1999 and 2000.

But can one really blame whatever diminishing influence today’s hardline anticorporate rebels may be experiencing on the rise of philanthropic consumption? The urge to smash Starbucks windows and the urge to wear $170 Emporio Armani sunglasses are hardly compatible phenomena—would the people purchasing the latter really be eager to help Klein menace billionaires with giant, papier-mâché puppet-heads at the global summit of the WTO if Project (RED) didn’t exist?

In the same way that Gap, Inc. targets different segments of the market with the Gap, Old Navy and Banana Republic, the social-justice movement is diversifying. This is good news for those who’d prefer to riot in the malls instead of the streets, but perhaps even better news for activists like Klein. After all, if you can’t capitalize on the spectacle of enlightened First-Worlders celebrating their global compassion by donning $28 T-shirts made by AIDS-stricken women toiling in Lesotho garment factories for $5 a day, then you’re just not working hard enough.

And imagine the public-relations disasters that will result if the companies licensing the Project (RED) brand don’t live up to the project’s ideals. Back in the good old, bad old days, multinationals like Gap, Inc. amassed fortunes off sweatshop labor while shrugging off their dependence on it with cool corporate detachment. They didn’t employ the workers themselves, they’d carefully explain. They had no control over how their suppliers ran their businesses.

Now, Gap, Inc. and others are not only benefiting from low Third World wages, they’re also literally merchandising Third World misery. The distant, abstract drones who manufacture their products have become their spokesmodels, their brand architects, and the new intimacy that characterizes the relationship between these workers and the companies that participate in Project (RED) makes the latter more vulnerable and policeable than they’ve ever been before.

Instead of scorning Bono, Klein should send him one of Hallmark’s “You make my life 99% more awesomer” Project (RED) greeting cards. If the project’s partners act in any way that doesn’t coordinate well with Project (RED)’s rhetoric, she’ll be halfway toward her next bestseller. In the meantime, there’s that $45 million. While it’s substantially less than the $7 to $10 billion the Global Fund says it needs each year to combat AIDS in developing countries, it’s $38 million more than the organization managed to collect from the private sector from 2002 to 2006.

Perhaps a pair of rose-tinted Armani sunglasses are required to make the necessary leap of faith, but what if that revenue stream continues to grow? Any dollars that flow into the Global Fund through Project (RED) increase the Global Fund’s autonomy from the government benefactors it currently relies on for the bulk of its funding. Similarly, the more popular Project (RED) grows as a brand independent of any specific product, the less it has to cater to any single corporate partner. Which ultimately means that consumers, not the corporations that license the brand, hold the real key to Project (RED)’s power—the more valuable they make the brand, the more negotiating power Project (RED) will have with potential licensees.

With Project (RED), the millions of people who’d like to see big corporations behave in a more just manner but don’t want to throw out the BabyGap with the bathwater have a convenient if semi-appalling means to exert their collective might. It’s not an approach that pleases everyone, but in the end, dissent has at least one thing in common with button-front cashmere cardigans—it’s always nice to have more than one style to choose from.

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