By intertwining political messages in corporate advertising, Bono this evening on American Idol’s Idol Gives Back, is attracting a great deal of support for his cause, the Global Fund.
Problem is, he (and the entire episode) blurs important boundaries between commercial advertising and politics. Disease is a public concern. By privatizing it, disease becomes public relations strategy.
The emerging role of advertisers as gatekeepers for political messages is a trend to be feared, especially with a Supreme Court that stands ready to bury the doctrine that distinguishes commercial speech (which may be regulated to protect the public) from political speech (which is protected by the First Amendment).
Nowadays, it seems unimaginable for anybody, including Bono, to organize an event on the scale of the Global Fund without turning to corporate America. Indeed the Global Fund receives more money from the Red Campaign than from Russia.
But why would Bono get into bed with Fox/ News Corp. In part this is the problem. Bono sees an opportunity to leverage News Corp and American Idol to address complex social issues. What advertisers see is an ability to leverage desired demographics (18- to 49-year-olds) in furtherance of commercial advertising.
Some suggest that it doesn’t matter who is using whom as long as important issues such as AIDS and global warming are being addressed.
But more is at stake than these two key social issues. Politics and social causes are the stuff of society’s public sphere, but the public sphere is being overwhelmed by the corporate logic of cause-related marketing. Public relations campaigns do not respond to crises; they provide window dressing.
The privatizing of Bono’s AIDS-prevention message offers a window on how this phenomenon is transforming political speech. As disease is privatized, sponsors of the Red Campaign take Bono’s message, produce surreal versions of it, infuse it into products and then market it back to consumers. Consider a current Gap Red Campaign advertisement: “Can a T-shirt save the world? This one can! … 20,000. The number of women and children in Africa who can receive AIDS treatment for a year thanks to the contributions from your purchases of Gap Product Red.”
Is this ad commercial or political? Does it propose a commercial transaction? Is it misleading?
Advertising in the 21st century is less about proposing a transaction and more about constructing identities around corporate brands. But constructing personal and social identity fits more closely with political than commercial speech.
The First Amendment protects the sort of political dialogue Bono is promoting and prevents the government from regulating such dialogue without some extremely good reason. But the government is allowed to protect consumers from misleading product information by regulating commercial speech.
Because it is impossible to parse the political from the commercial in the Gap ads, this sort of advertising lends support to ongoing efforts by neoliberal, pro-deregulation forces to move advertising into the “political speech” category.
The problem is that oil and pharmaceutical companies, for example, would also seek protection from government regulators by hiding behind political-speech safeguards. But limits on commercial speech are there for a good reason.
Mingling commercial and political speech would allow corporations to mislead — even lie to — the public about such matters as product safety, product effectiveness and corporate profits. Another danger is that once corporations start calling the shots and setting the agenda regarding HIV/AIDS, potential remedies for these ills would likely be limited to those that are also profitable.
The proponents of the Red Campaign favor government regulation — for example, of the price of anti-HIV/AIDS pharmaceuticals — even if this dampens the corporate bottom line.
As Bono is devoting his lives to building awareness about global warming and HIV/AIDS, it would be a shame to see the legacy of the Red Campaign interfere with the solutions these activists seek to deliver.
It matters who is using whom after all.
This is a revised version of an earlier post and op-ed that appeared in the Baltimore Sun