The ostentation of charity

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The process of giving money to good causes is starting to bother me. Not because of those annoying people who approach you in the street and yabber at you until you give them your credit card details – I put them only one rung above those awful Amex sellers in shopping centres. I’m talking about recent trend of flaunting charity by accessorising with our generosity as if it were some kind of Gucci for rich Westerners with a social conscience. The Oxfam wristband promoted by Coldplay’s Chris Martin said “Make Poverty History”. It’s time we made wristbands history as well.

Especially when, as another Radar site reports, they’ve been used for some truly horrifying purposes. Check out the pro-Michael Jackson wristbands.

But the whole accessorising-with-charity thing has just been taken to new heights by Bono – who else? He’s come up with an uber-hip new concept called Product Red, or (PRODUCT)RED if we really must. The brackets thing is about taking a brand “to the power of red”, which is that rare thing – both fashionable and mathematical.

The idea is an extremely clever one. He uses his star-power to convince trendy brands to produce trendy products, usually in red. Then trendy consumers buy them, and use them to demonstrate just how trendy, trendy, trendy they are. Funds are raised for AIDS drugs in Africa.

They have a “manifesto” which is hypertrendy as well:

IF THEY DON’T GET THE PILLS, THEY DIE. WE DON’T WANT THEM TO DIE. WE WANT TO GIVE THEM THE PILLS. AND WE CAN. AND YOU CAN. AND IT’S EASY.

Strange thing is that as irritatingly simplistic as this sounds, it actually is pretty straightforward, and it does raise a lot of money. The existing products included American Express cards, Converse All-Stars and Motorola RAZRs, but that wasn’t trendy enough. So now Apple have just jumped aboard with a red version of their iPod nano – “Sounds good. Does good.” When you buy one, Apple donates $10. You’d have to predict they’ll sell an avalanche-load.

This could create a dilemma for consumers. The red iPod looks great, it’s the best colour. And who doesn’t want to donate $10 for AIDS drugs? But in buying one, doesn’t that just make you look incredibly ostentatious? Like you think you’re morally superior to those who have those oh-so-passé white or black iPods?

Then again, anyone hugely worried about appearing ostentatious probably won’t buy an iPod anyway, let’s face it.

But perhaps there’s another way to look at this. Perhaps making charity fashionable is a stroke of cynical genius. Maybe Western consumers are just so shallow and materialistic that the best way to raise money from them is to go along with that, rather than convincing them otherwise? We tend to balk at charity, but think nothing of splurging on consumer goods. So if just pointing out that people are dying and it’d be nice if we incredibly rich people helped with it doesn’t work, maybe appealing to our shallow side is the best approach after all?

It certainly seems to be yielding results with Project Red, if you believe their website. They’ve already distributed $10 million. And if people are going to buy this stuff anyway, and they do, it’s surely better that some of that money goes to one of the best causes around.

But I’d like to see companies going further. Why doesn’t Apple give $10 from every iPod to a different charity? Their margin on those things is huge anyway, if you believe the reports. It’s not like they or the consumers will actually miss that money. So why not make themselves feel better?

Wouldn’t it be great if every time you bought a vaguely luxurious item, 5% of the purchase price went to charity? Like a luxury tax, only for charity. So there’d be no choice, and also no ostentation associated with having that specific product that’s the “charitable edition”. I can’t think of a better company to kick this off than Apple, whose stuff is already expensive, and whose addicted consumers are hugely price-insensitive anyway.

Above all, you’d retain the most important benefit: assuaging our guilt at having enough money to blow on such inessential items. Most people in the West have the nagging sense that the distribution of wealth around the world isn’t quite right, and that something should be done. But that doesn’t generally take them as far as really putting their hands in their pockets.

As much as I hate the idea of wearing your generosity to the gym – or literally on your sleeve, if you buy the red Emporio Armani watch – I’ve had to begrudgingly concede that Project Red is a good thing, because of its ultimate impact. It’d be so much better if we just gave money, but we don’t give enough. So in short, it raises donations that almost certainly wouldn’t be raised otherwise.

Perhaps we should embrace this? Perhaps all charity should take our shallowness and selfishness as a starting point? Maybe if we’re honest about just how cravenly, disgustingly consumerist we are – and heaven knows I am – we might actually raise enough money to do something useful. Product Red caviar, anyone?

Dominic Knight

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