AIDS Conference Looks at Consumer Activism

AIDS Conference Looks at Consumer Activism

Over the past few months, I've been seeing more and more people in Toronto sporting (Product) Red™ clothing and connecting their ubiquitous white earbuds to red iPods, all in support of the Global Fund's (RED) Initiative to combat the spread of AIDS in Africa.

While the motives are noble — after all, it is impossible to argue that AIDS isn't a pressing issue on the global agenda — I often wonder how many people actually sit down and ponder upon the consequences of this kind of 'consumer activism'. How does this kind of 'buycott' of certain products affect our local economies and the distribution of political power in a corporately-funded charitable cause?

The Branding AIDS Conference, organized by Gendering Adolescent AIDS Prevention and being held at the University of Toronto on October 17, aims to ask some of those questions and many more revolving around the corporate branding of the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

Dealing with issues such as the representation of Africa in charitable campaigns, the similarities and differences between consumer and grassroots activism, and the economic and political impact of corporate aid, the Branding AIDS Conference will look at how recent celebrity crusades and advertising campaigns have produced a new HIV/AIDS visibility.

Speakers include Dr. Vinh-Kim Nguyen of the University of Montreal, Dr. Colleen O'Manique of Trent University, Rick Salutin of the University of Toronto and the Globe and Mail, and Dr. Rinaldo Walcott of the University of Toronto. The keynote address will be delivered by Dr. Lisa Ann Richey of the Danish Institute of International Studies, co-author of the forthcoming book From Band Aid to Brand Aid.

I recently had the chance to ask Yuvraj Joshi, conference organizer and Director of the Youth Advisory Board of Gendering Adolescent AIDS Prevention, a few questions about the conference.

(Interesting fact: The initial concept for the conference was influenced by Yuvraj's article about the
Product Red campaign, which he had written in the fall of 2006 at the age of nineteen — a perfect example of youth doing something about the HIV/AIDS pandemic that does not involve the use of credit cards.)

What can participants at the Branding AIDS Conference expect on October 17? What should they do to come prepared for the conference?

We look forward to having scholars, students, journalists and activists come together to discuss this pervasive phenomenon called 'cause branding.' The response to the Conference has been overwhelming. People are ready to think critically about how much shopping at The Gap really is helping eliminate AIDS, and how much it really is not.

What are the outcomes you hope to achieve from the conference? How will the issues addressed in the conference be be shared with the larger, global audience?

We are working closely with our speakers to shift the focus of the discussion from what is happening in Africa to why it is happening. This critical element is missing from recent campaigns. The brands are selling a simple solution to a complex problem. We will discuss just how complex the problem really is, and then decide if their solution holds up.

The Conference has become remarkably global. We are hosting delegates representing over fifty governmental and non-governmental organizations from across the world — everyone from the Kenyan Ministry of Health to the Stephen Lewis Foundation is coming. We hope that our participants will share their critical perspectives, and take the discussion back to their organizations and communities.

The Branding AIDS Conference is currently filled to capacity and registration is currently closed. Check blogTO for a post-conference round-up.

The Branding AIDS Conference will be held on Wednesday October 17, 2007 at noon at New College, University of Toronto. For more information, please visit the conference website.

(Photo by J. Mark Bertrand.)

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