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Reconsidering (RED) 

According to Motorola, “saving lives is sexy,” but does buying celebrity-endorsed products help or harm?

Red is a complex colour, rich in 
meanings, connections and contradictions. Over the past few years (Product)RED has added more to consider.

(Product)RED is a family of consumer brands within brands. You can buy (RED) clothes at Gap, shoes from Converse and digital stuff from Apple. According to the (RED) manifesto online: “If you buy a (RED) product, or sign up for a (RED) service, at no cost to you, a (RED) company will give some of its profits to buy and distribute anti-
retroviral medicine for our brothers and sisters dying of AIDS in Africa.”

John Cameron, assistant professor at Dalhousie University’s department of international development studies, recently wondered about this while researching the online presence of (Product)RED. He came across an ad on YouTube for (RED) Motorola cellphones. Cameron recalls a barely dressed woman dancing sexily and then---the kicker---the tag line stated: “Saving lives is sexy.”

Using sex is advertising status quo---and has been for decades---but what the ad didn’t declare, Cameron says, is that an essential coating for components in all cellphones, called coltan, is derived from a mineral mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo. And, “It fuels the civil conflict there,” says Cameron.

Much like blood- or conflict-diamonds, whoever controls coltan mines in the DRC, whether rebel groups, government or mining companies, funds their causes---and only their own causes.

Around the same time as this discovery, Cameron was talking to Anna Haanstra, a graduate student in international development studies. She mentioned a conversation when she was asked what she was studying. When Haanstra replied, someone said, “Oh that’s a sexy thing to be studying.”

These experiences led Cameron and Haanstra to co-author a presentation: “Development Made Sexy: How It Got That Way and What It Means.” The talk, noon on February 7 (the last day of International Days at Dalhousie), is part of “research in progress,” says Cameron, who co-ordinates his department’s Global Development Seminar Series with colleague Nissim Mannathukkaren.

Their research goal is not to declare efforts such as (Product)RED as “inherently bad,” Cameron says. But, he adds, “It’s tied so very closely to buying more stuff.” And that stuff is usually produced by the poor in the figurative south, while those in the wealthier north just have to buy it.

“There is value in reaching a broader audience,” Haanstra explains. “But the ‘sex sells’ approach may oversimplify complex issues and places the spotlight not on southern countries and people but rather on donors and activists from the north.

“Other possible implications can be that certain development issues are overlooked because media doesn’t deem them ‘sexy’ enough or a sexy celeb has not taken on the cause.”

Finally, and most importantly, she adds, the abilities and individual efforts of the very people facing poverty to end that condition are overlooked. Agents of change in the local communities are potentially cast as “passive victims,” while outsiders from the so-called developed world hold the key to solutions “without questioning whether we are a source of the problem.”

The use of celebrity attention-grabbers is not new. Actor Audrey Hepburn was an ambassador for the United Nations well before Angelina Jolie was born. Then there was Live Aid in the mid-’80s. Live Aid founder Bob Geldof was dogged by questions about the appearance of paternalism in rich rock stars playing short sets on stages far from starved lands. Cameron says he hadn’t considered Live Aid in this context.

“I think Live Aid provided a concrete reference point for how celebrities could reach a broader audience,” Haanstra agrees.

Clearly it’s a question of degrees or intensity. Today, messages move faster, are repeated more often, are found in more places and attempt to be more seductive. “I think because the use of celeb sex appeal coincides so nicely with our consumption model and does not necessarily require a radical change or re-evaluation of how we live, it will be around for a while and likely intensify,” Haanstra says.

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