Wednesday, February 13, 2008

"Shopping has never been more important."

This quote from Swedish clothing company H&M, the same people who bring us this lovely advertisement on the bus stop outside DRL:
We "believe" that you're all morons.

You may have heard about AIDS. You may have wished you could do something about it. Well, great news - you can go on doing what you've always been doing and wonderful companies like H&M will save the world for you. All you have to do is buy their quality products. "Designers Against AIDS" joins initiatives like the RED campaign (critiqued here by my lovely friend leighcia) which bundle virtue with their products to superficially fight the world's great ills.

Everybody wins. The designers get their names advertised and associated with a "good cause." H&M gets the revenue spike associated with a successful campaign. You get to feel great about yourself for your altruism.

And those suffering from AIDS? They don't actually get anything. It took some digging on the web site, but I eventually found something which told me goals more concrete than "fighting AIDS," though not much more concrete. A whopping 25% of these proceeds go to "raise awareness and prevent the spread of AIDS worldwide."

I wouldn't be surprised at all if advertising for this campaign qualifies as "raising awareness."

Their other efforts appear to be centered on getting people to use condoms, which puzzles me. Do they not consider research for a cure a worthwhile investment? Do they think that since those who have already contracted HIV are going to die anyway, it's not worth caring for them? Both of these areas seem at least as important to me as preventing the spread of the disease (and I imagine that it's controversial how much good condom campaigns actually do). Their exclusion seems to betray some hypocrisy that I can't put my finger on.

So, for all of its noise, the campaign actually does very little more than repeat a message harped on since middle school to wealthy young Westerners.

Meaningless as the stated goals of these campaigns may be, I would go as far as to say their unstated goals are actually sinister. They seek to establish corporations as the agents for moral action in our society, rather than encouraging people to actually care about the problems and actually do something with their lives to solve them. They are a sedative, deepening complicity in an existence centered around consumption and self-gratification. They are poison.

Ezekiel speaks well of such false prophets (and false profits?):
Because, indeed, because they have seduced My people, saying, 'Peace!' when there is no peace--and one builds a wall, and they plaster it with untempered mortar*--

say to those who plaster it with untempered mortar, that it will fall. There will be flooding rain, and you, O great hailstones, shall fall; and a stormy wind shall tear it down.

Surely, when the wall has fallen, will it not be said to you, 'Where is the mortar with which you plastered it?' "

Therefore thus says the Lord God: "I will cause a stormy wind to break forth in My fury; and there shall be a flooding rain in My anger, and great hailstones in fury to consume it.

So I will break down the wall you have plastered with untempered mortar, and bring it down to the ground, so that its foundation will be uncovered; it will fall, and you shall be consumed in the midst of it. Then you shall know that I am the Lord.
Ezekiel 13:10-14
*Other translations render "untempered mortar" as "whitewash."

P.S. H&M is also behind a gigantic photo of a reclining and nearly nude woman above the Philly Car Share pod at 21st and Chestnut - nothing like filling a public space with an image damaging to men and women alike. They also appear to have a penchant for giant murals (like this giant Madonna in New York) which are actually ads - nothing like mixing advertising with art. I hate this company.


M. Weed said...

Sometimes a word of vengeance is actually encouraging. Thanks.

Jonathan said...

That's a surprisingly cynical take on corporate responsibility.

This is a very interesting subject, and I think it's worth composing a response on my blog. Stay tuned!

(Though maybe not for a while. I have a big backlog of ideas that haven't yet found their way to print. But maybe I'll bump this to the front of the queue)

richard said...

do you always have a camera on you?

Nicholas said...

Pretty much. Whenever I have my backpack.

kp said...

interesting stuff. on another angle, now apparently you're supposed to shop because that will pull the economy out of recession! (and of course, help desperate homeowners in the process)

Anonymous said...

We have contacted H&M as we want to reach as many people in the industrialised world (the wealthy westerners, indeed)as possible to inform them that it's still important to protect themselves and their partner(s)from getting infected by HIV- infections are rising again everywhere and the last global AIDS campaigns took place twenty years ago. Of course research for a cure is important! Of course you have to help seropositive people! It's just that a lot of other organisations are working on those subjects already, but prevention in the 'rich' countries is totally overlooked these days- even at most schools. Possibly because there are antiretroviral medicines now, so even if oyu do get infected, you can live to be a hundred years old (give or take a side effect or two). And until that cure is found, surely it's better not to get infected, right? We decided to focus on prevention, as the HIV/AIDS subject is so huge and complex and we work with only two paid people and an intern here - really, we're very happy that we could use the PR machine of H&M in this way and yes, the campaign itself was already meant to raise AIDS awareness too. Strange that you didn't mention the fact that H&M doesn't take any of the profits or that they paid the campaign out of their own pocket (of course they can afford that but I'm sure that their shareholders would prefer if they kept all that money for themselves). Nothing sinister going on from our side - and UNAIDS (the global initiative of the UN and our partner) agrees completely. I trust their judgment.
Kindest regards,
Ninette Murk
Founder/Director 'Designers against AIDS'

Anonymous said...

Ms. Murk,

I agree that prevention is almost almost as important as a cure when dealing with an infectious disease, but I think the main point of this blog post still remains true. This campaign is taking the moral responsibility out of the hands of the people; it reduces their responsibility to a simple transaction at an H&M store. Real change will come when the people realize that it takes much more direct action than simply passing the buck to a corporation in the name of "raising awareness."

So, in the sense that your campaign is directed at raising awareness to prevent the spread of the disease, it would be a good thing if it were successful. But I don't know any consumers who equate the clothes they buy with helping fight AIDS, and this is because their purchase at the store is so far removed from the real problem. As such, and as the blogger has suggested, this campaign is a win-win for H&M, but not for the people living with AIDS.

RXH said...

It is obvious that raising money and awareness is important. It is more telling of the American consumer that this is what some of us choose to do as part of their perceived "direct action." What's worse is that many do not feel the need to analyze their actions and instead allow others to tell them what is direct and indirect action. As for what, then, constitutes direct action...that has its own spectrum. This is up to the individual to decide and hopefully to be humble enough to always be a student. To the readers of this blog, it is telling that you are reading, ie being a sponge.

Regardless of whether Product RED, Designers Against AIDS, and other civil society/corporate groups' campaigns are successful, raising awareness about HIV/AIDS is not an end in itself. Instead it is one means to an end where the acceptable and ethical ends are care and treatment for people infected and preventative measures for those who are uninfected. If we always keep in mind that these are the ends and that the true "consumers" is not the American middle class but people living with HIV/AIDS and other marginalized groups at risk of infection, then we can truly call ourselves "agents of change."
I do not know very much about Designers against AIDS, so I don't know if the following applies but I do want to add that many HIV/AIDS nonprofits are not as accountable to their mission statement as some of corporate America's social responsibility branches. Oh ironic how it is now "cool" to be social justice aware - a new word was created in 2007: the position of "chief sustainability officer" (

Anonymous said...

Interesting points of view indeed, at least it makes people think about the subject. And that was also our goal: to make young people aware of the fact that HIV/AIDS is still happening near them too.
If we wouldn't have organised 'Fashion against AIDS', tens of thousands of young people still wouldn't have realised the importance of safe sex. I mean, if even Rihanna and Timbaland say so... (try to think in their place for a second here).
Granted, 9 out of 10 will just buy such a t-shirt because it's cool and that's OK -they are the same price as other 'regular' H&M t-shirts, so that's not the point. But it's the 1 out of 10- or even out of 100, or 1000, that interests us. Maybe they take care from now on. Meaning they will stay healthy- or at least not get infected with HIV- so they can help others who were less lucky.
Call me naive - a badge I'll wear with pride- but I'm sure we'll achieve something good here.
To reassure 'rhx': Belgian laws are very strict about NGO's and non-profits, certainly not less so than in the US. We never had any money anyway- when I started DAA in 2001 (oh irony, because I was fed up with my 'cool' job as fashion editor!), I lost 3/4 of my income and all my saving money, just because I believe this work is important and nobody else is doing it this way (at least they weren't back in 2001). And we still don't have any funds to speak of -most brands aren't really eager to link their precious name to an organisation that works with a 'self inflicted' disease such as AIDS. Give H&M a bit of credit here, OK?
And don't compare us with Product (RED) -fighting AIDS in Africa is a bit too easy- especially on the conscience. Imo it's perfectly possibly to wear a GAP Product RED t-shirt while having unsafe sex and still thinking you've done the right thing.