Despite being prepared for some shocks upon my return to the UK, nothing had prepared me for the crass and exploitative commercialism of this advertisement for the American Express Red card. I first saw this at Clapham Common tube station. I turned to my friends and asked them if they felt the same outrage I did, and realised that my exposure to the tragedy that is South Africa’s AIDS epidemic caused me to feel the pain in a way that they didn’t (I checked with some South African friends: I’m not alone).
Most offensive to me is the phrase “Has there ever been a better reason to shop?”, a somewhat surprising admission of the nature of this product and campaign (interestingly it was omitted from the other ads I spotted). The purpose is to tap into and profit from a particular market of “ethical consumers” on the back of the suffering and death of millions of Africans. Any actual benefit to those suffering will be marginal, and wholly outweighed by the profits AmEx and its board intend to receive.
More than six months after launch AmEx has donated some indeterminate sixth of $10 million to The Global Fund (see the pledges & contributions spreadsheet – the contributions of six companies including AmEx are lumped together), during which time two hundred thousand South Africans died of AIDS and AmEx made something like $1.8 billion in profits.
In contrast, The Gates Foundation has donated $500 million without recourse to a marketing campaign like this. I’m no big fan of the Gatesian approach to social change (see Slavoj Zizek’s Nobody has to be vile for a well-argued analysis), but at least the self-proclaimed “liberal communists” don’t make me queasy as did this ad and the details I went on to dig up.
AmEx believes the number of conscience consumers in Britain will grow from its present level of 1.5 million to more than four million by 2009…
…each of the partner companies will return a share of the profits from the sale of Red products to the Global Fund in return for the opportunity to increase their own revenue – and profits – by attracting ethical consumers.
One imagines that this large and growing group of British “conscience” consumers is not the traditional customer base for American Express, and they must be hoping the backing of Bono and the oh-so-fashionable “we fight AIDS in Africa” message will reverse their fortunes with the fairtrade crowd.
Of course this is aside from the potential kickbacks for the fatcats running the joint. A cursory examination of the American Express Board of Directors reveals that there may be a few profits coming to some of its members through any purchases of pharmaceuticals or medical supplies that get funded by the scheme:
Jan Leschly, former CEO and Director of GlaxoSmithKline who produce three anti-HIV medications
William G. Bowen, also on the board of Merck & Co., Inc. “a global research-driven pharmaceutical company” (Merck & Co. website) described by Wikipedia as “one of the top 5 largest pharmaceutical companies in the world” and as the manufacturer of Crixivan a “protease inhibitor HIV medication”. (Although Bowen is not listed on the AmEx page, he is cited as a director by Forbes, and searches on an SEC database demonstrate at the very least a significant ongoing relationship)
Peter R. Dolan, former CEO of Bristol-Myers Squibb “a leading provider of medicines to fight…infectious diseases — including HIV/AIDS” (Bristol-Myers website), was recently fired from BMS over a patent dispute and was also until recently on the board of Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America
Daniel F. Akerson, also MD of The Carlyle Group “one of the world’s largest private equity firms…focuses on sectors…[including]…healthcare” (The Carlyle Group website)
Of course all this assumes that any real money will make its way out of AmEx coffers: after all “less than 1 per cent of the income received by Global Fund…comes from private corporate sources, rather than individual donations.” (the aforementioned GBC article).
Bono anticipated criticism like mine when he launched his “Red” campaign with a rather patronising and simplistic metaphor (and by the way thanks for wrecking my enjoyment of those amazing songs you performed back when you weren’t a shameful corporate marketing tool!):
“We’re working with big business. But the problem just has to be sorted and we can’t do it with governments alone. We’re fighting a fire. The house is burning down. Let’s get the water. You end up beside somebody who lives up the road who you don’t really like. Do you care if he’s polishing up his image by putting the fire out?” (Independent Online)
Well before that makes any sense let’s see AmEx do some significant firefighting instead of trumpeting their worthiness in advertising. A few million dollars doesn’t douse many flames when 25 million are suffering. Why don’t they donate the money they are spending on promoting this card (they spend $550 million annually on marketing)? Why? Because profiteers don’t operate that way.
Even if they do end up giving any significant amount to The Global Fund, I’m still left wondering about the overall economic structure of the relationship of Western big business to Africa. If most of that money ends up back in the pockets of AmEx directors and others like them, whilst Africans suffer from the straitjacket of imposed neoliberal trade policies, who are the real beneficiaries?