- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 19, 2006

This Christmas, AIDS activists want consumers to see red. RedIPods.Red Emporio Armani watches. Red Gap clothing. Even red Motorola cell phones.

Thanks to a campaign designed to associate AIDS relief with the color red, consumers can buy any of these products and see a portion of proceeds go to fighting the AIDS pandemic in Africa through the Global Fund, an organization that helps fight AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria worldwide.

The campaign illustrates a growing trend of using one color to market nonprofit advocacy initiatives. Other such campaigns use pink to advocate for breast cancer awareness and research support, green to support the environment and purple to oppose domestic violence.

Rock singer Bono of U2 spawned the idea of calling the AIDS initiative (PRODUCT)RED or (RED). Bono, who co-founded (RED) with Bobby Shriver, son of Sargent Shriver, thought red represented emergency and blood, noting the emergency state of the AIDS pandemic in Africa and the transference of the HIV virus in human blood, (RED) spokesman Rob Novickas said.

Preliminary tracking numbers for the first six weeks of the U.S. debut, which began Oct. 13, show (RED) products have raised enough money to provide 40,000 yearlong anti-retroviral treatments, HIV training for 2 million peer educators or one million rapid tests to identify HIV cases.

“I think what people are trying to do is make these sometimes tough issues very accessible to the public,” said Anna Marie Johnson Teague, an account supervisor at the Houston office of the Dawson/Duncan Communications public relations firm.

She said advertisers often try to use “repetitive messages,” and repeatedly using a color to represent an advocacy movement is effective because of its simplicity.

She also said the tactic also allows corporations to get involved with the advocacy effort, as exemplified in the case of (RED) or the pink-ribbon breast cancer campaign.

But some activists think corporate involvement often does little to help solve the problems these colors represent. Barbara Brenner, executive director of Breast Cancer Action, takes issue with companies that use the color pink, often in the form of a looped ribbon, to sell products — an issue that has led to BCA’s “Think Before You Pink” campaign.

Miss Brenner said the pink ribbon is no longer used for its original purpose: helping people identify with breast cancer and raising awareness about real problems in the fight against cancer.

BCA says the pink ribbon got its origins in the early 1990s, when Charlotte Haley made peach-colored cloth ribbons by hand and distributed them with a card that called for wearers to “wake up our legislators and America” about the less than 5 percent of the National Cancer Institute budget spent on cancer prevention.

Later, Estee Lauder and Self magazine asked her if they could use her ribbon for a campaign, but she refused, citing their commercial intents. The two corporations then changed the color to pink — the color the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation says it has used since 1982 — and the commercial breast cancer campaigns began.

“Nobody knows where all this money goes,” Miss Brenner said, noting many campaigns that pledge only to give an ambiguous “portion” of profits to breast cancer research or activist groups. In addition, Miss Brenner said, corporations often set a cap on donations and continue to market the “pink” product after they have raised the maximum donation amount, which she said is “unfair.”

She also wonders whether corporations spend more money marketing the “pink” product than they contribute to the cause, and she accused some corporations, such as some cosmetic companies, of “pinkwashing,” which means an item’s production or usage may contribute to the development of cancer.

“So now lots of people wear pink ribbons, and lots of people think they know lots about breast cancer, but they don’t,” she said. Instead, she thinks people need to know about the horrors of cancer and the amount of work needed before researchers discover a cure.

Miss Brenner said corporations’ donations of a portion of sales to help solve world problems represents a transition of civic participation from grass-roots advocacy to corporate involvement.

“It’s no longer the public’s responsibility or the government’s responsibility to deal with the issues facing us,” she said. “That has very serious implications for democracy …

“We’re plenty aware. The question is, what can we do now. The answer cannot be buying something.”

Not all campaigns, however, involve selling products and donating a portion of proceeds. Annie’s Homegrown organic food brand began asking customers to “Be Green” in 1989, when founder Annie Withey began putting the slogan on boxes and providing free bumper stickers reading, “Be Green. Help the Earth live,” said Sarah Bird, the company’s vice president for marketing.

“It’s still very much part of the heart and soul of the brand and what we stand for,” Miss Bird said, adding the company packages products in recycled paper boxes.

Although the “Be Green” campaign does not involve any financial donations by Annie’s Homegrown, Miss Bird said environmentally conscious consumers may choose to buy the brand over other options.

“I think for the hard-core natural and organic consumer, it just reinforces that we align with the lifestyle that they’re trying to live,” she said. “It makes us a more authentic brand.”

In addition, Lupita Reyes, national program director for the Verizon Foundation’s domestic-violence prevention and health care programs, said the foundation chose to use a purple logo because other domestic-violence activists had already adopted the color purple for its conveyance of safety and warmth.

“It’s just really a way to connect with that issue,” she said of choosing to use the color. She said she hopes the widespread use of purple to fight domestic violence will help the issue become less of a “whispering-type of [subject].”

Other color campaigns include the Yellow Ribbon suicide-prevention initiative, Code Blue campaigns for health care reform and other initiatives associating child-protection services with the color blue.

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