It’s been four years, but the juggernaut that is (PRODUCT) RED rolls on. And new products keep getting added to what was once only GAP t-shirts, Starbucks lattes and iPod Nanos. Most recently, Nike joined in with special edition laces. Yes, that’s right. Laces. As in, laces. (This makes me wonder why there hasn’t been a SWEDOW/(RED) collabo, à la “Save an African, then clothe him with the t-shirt—now used obviously—that saved his life!” Between labels like GAP, Armani, Converse and Nike, the possibilities are endless!)  And just this week, it was announced that book publisher Penguin Classics was partnering with (RED) to bring us special editions of “some of the best books ever written,” including titles from Edith Wharton, Henry James, Leo Tolstoy, and, none other than Joseph Conrad. Yes. I know what you’re thinking but, alas, it is not his Heart of Darkness. I suppose even Bono can understand that this would have been the ultimate irony. Buy the heart of darkness and save it at the same time!

After four years of this, there really doesn’t seem anything left to say about (RED), which is why I was expecting more of the same from The Lazarus Effect, the Spike Jonze-produced (RED)/HBO documentary about Zambians living with HIV/Aids that premiered last night. (You can watch the 30-minute film in its entirety on YouTube here.)

Well, I wasn’t entirely wrong.

There is no Bono. No Hollywood celebrities, in fact. And the only mention of (RED) comes at the end through a short sentence, which seemed to imply that (RED), for all its impact, has nothing to do with the fact that the Zambians profiled in the film now have access to free ARVs. Of course, the campaign’s touch is evident in the “before” (pre-ARV treatment) and “after” (post-ARV treatment) photos of the men, women and children profiled that are meant to highlight the dramatic difference in health (read: appearance) that an ARV regimen provides. The conditions under which they consented to have these pictures taken, and then broadcast, remain unclear.

But, I have to wonder—hey, Sean did—whether I too should cut Bono and (RED) some slack. After all, on the surface at least, it seems that when it comes to issues of representation, they’ve come a long way in the past four years. The website has undergone several, and I should say—welcome, changes. Gone is the original Manifesto. (I guess the revolution never came.) As is the Impact Calculator. (Remember how you could track your purchase forward? All the way to the nameless, faceless African whose life you were saving? I always wondered why you couldn’t track it backwards, to that nameless, faceless sweatshop factory worker who had made the t-shirt now being used to save an African life.) Gone too are the days of (RED)’s use of white models in blackface, white models posing with African “props,” and special Africa issues that neglected to feature any Africans (recent forays at the Globe and Mail notwithstanding).

Of course, that’s all well and good, but (RED) is still around. And the real problem is, and always was, the (RED) model itself. One thing Bono does get right is that 40 cents does indeed buy you more than a silly hat, or gum if you’re Penelope Cruz, or a candy necklace if you’re Iman (see video above). What 40 cents actually buys you is the luxury to avoid having to think about real solutions to complex social, political and economic problems. No need to think about PEPFAR or other mechanisms of global funding for AIDS treatment and prevention, international trade policies, or even how your consumption levels might contribute to global inequality. When compared to all that, 40 cents for an African life is quite the bargain. Literally.

*To the tune of Jesse Jackson’s Keep Hope Alive.

Further Reading

No more caricatures

Engaging seriously with Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s life could help us understand how South Africa got where it is and where it’s going.