Dear CMO:

Sure, we talked this over at length last week but apparently we were ahead of the wave. I see that Ad Age sagely declared the failure of Project (RED) by virtue of its “meager” $18 million in contributions to combat AIDS and malaria in Africa. “Meager” when viewed next to the estimated $100 million co-op ad campaign run by sponsors GAP, Apple, Motorola, Armani, Converse and a few others, apparently.

Adding to the chorus of holy nay-sayers is the “Buy (LESS) Crap” e-campaign – I know, the mellifluous use of the English language sometimes leaves me breathless… or breath(LESS), as the case may be – which apparently exhorts us all *not* to support brands that put their money where their mouths are. This, from Ad Age:

“… [Buy Less Crap is] a group of San Francisco designers and artists, who take issue with Bono’s rallying cry. “Shopping is not a solution. Buy less. Give more,” is the message at, which encourages people to give directly to the Global Fund. “The Red campaign proposes consumption as the cure to the world’s evils,” said Ben Davis, creative director at Word Pictures Ideas, co-creator of the site. “Can’t we just focus on the real solution — giving money?”

Actually, no. In fact, the naivety of the suggestion leaves me a bit speech(LESS). The (RED) manifesto suggests that consumers and consumerism is a viable solution in and of itself:

All things being equal. They are not. As consumers, we have tremendous power. What we collectively choose to buy or not to buy, can change the course of life and history on this planet.

And, (RED) CEO Bobby Shriver further explains – as if he had to, but apparently he had to – how a comparison of marketing dollars to donations is a bit specious, in his wonderful response to the Ad Age article:

“… this marketing would have been spent anyway, on other product lines. It never would have been (nor will it ever be) given to the Global Fund. We were able to divert existing marketing dollars for (RED). The companies have erected signs in stores and billboards across America saying that AIDS in Africa is a serious global problem. What is the value of that communication? Your writer never tells us. A phenomenal benefit is that Gap, Apple, Sprint and other sales people are meeting Americans and explaining that 5,500 Africans dying daily of AIDS is preventable. What is the value of this?” (Hit the link and read the whole thing).

To summarize, a few highly motivated people convinced a half-dozen major world brands to launch a cause-related promotion to fight AIDS in Africa. And because someone out there in the weeds felt holier than thou, a pie fight broke out over who was more pure of spirit. Fantastic. Apparently, no good deed goes unpunished.

(RED) has raised $25 million to date, to be clear. The cost of a daily regimen of retro-viral AIDS drugs for Africa and the Caribbean has been cited as being as low as $0.38 per day. So this suggests that (RED), to date, would give 180,000 people an extra year of life. You know, all things considered, this isn’t something I’d deem an out and out failure.

So let’s separate two very important elements in this thread. First, there is an intention to do good by both Project (RED) and ostensibly by (LESS). This is good. The second is a closer examination of the real motivations behind (LESS), which frankly don’t smell good to me. I’m less concerned over the slightly over-protested cry for more transparency by (LESS) for (RED) than I am over what looks like a thinly veiled buzz campaign for a very small San Francisco ad agency.

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Key Takeaways:

> If you have a point to make, see if you can make it without insulting everyone around you. Do you come from a culture where things were done better? Show us a better way in a positive manner that makes us all feel like we’re part of the solution. Tell us we’re all stupid, and you stand no chance of winning our hearts and minds. Don’t alienate those you’re trying to win over. Like (LESS) did.

> Find your own unique positioning and make it work within the topography of your market. Had (LESS) said, “You Don’t Have to Buy… You Just Have to Give”, or words to that effect, and kept the same elegant visuals they employed, we’d all be cheering them on. They could have stood on the shoulders of a big campaign and done some good in the world. As it stands, they didn’t.

> Think through the implications before you go to creative. This whole thing smacks of a hastily thought out campaign that rushed straight to the fun stuff of making the ads. Who is the audience – the people who’ve already bought, the people who are on the fence, the people in the non-profits, the people in the brands; in short, have we identified the entire ecosystem of stakeholders and thought through how they’d react to this and what might motivate them to do something? Who will you be insulting? What do you want them to think? To do?

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Let’s consider a model citizen of corporate philanthropy, Newman’s Own. Paul Newman contributes 100% of his profits to a number of charities. Since 1991, Newman’s Own has raised and disbursed over $200M to charities. Or, to put it in context, they’ve given away an average of $12.5M a year for 16 years. (RED) has raised $25M in five months. Projected over 16 years, (RED) would raise just shy of $1,000,000,000. That’s a billion.

Are we therefore to despise Newman’s Own for contributing such a “meager” amount? Of course not. They disburse 100% of their gross profits to charity. Are we to sniff at (RED) because they don’t contribute 100% of their contributors’ gross profits? Of course not. They threw $25M (on their way to a billion) in the pot. You don’t complain about either, because both are doing good work. And that’s the whole point.

Cause-related promotions (or licensing, as (RED) has framed up its business model) and philanthropy are not the same thing. They may tap overlapping groups of people, but this is not a zero-sum game. These two activities are complementary and make the pie bigger. Shriver points this out in his very eloquent plucking of the Ad Age article. And more people get retro-viral drugs.

I’m a big fan of (RED) because it shows people that major brands support this worthy cause and generally spreads the message far further than a charitable program could have done. I’m not a fan of (LESS) – not because I disagree with their stated message – but because their execution was 180 degrees in the wrong direction. They could have stood shoulder to shoulder with (RED) and helped push the rock up the hill. Instead, they needlessly attacked someone doing good work. This is bad business.

Anyone in any field, regardless of their interest in cause-related marketing, can see a cautionary tale emerge. Before you launch your next “attack”, ask yourself who you’ll be turning off, and whether it will be worth it.


Copyright © 2007 Stephen Denny

PS: This has been well-hashed out over at the The Fix, but it bears repeating as Ad Age and Brand Channel are re-hashing it for our continuing entertainment. Go look at the Project (RED) website here. They have a blog, which suggests they want to talk. And by all means, look at (LESS) here. They don’t have a blog, but we’re hoping they start listening real hard, real soon.