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Published: November 30, 2006

 
 

Marketers of Life

The same techniques that sold cigarettes are slowing the spread of AIDS.

Illustration by Lars Leetaru
In an ad campaign for global retailer Aldo Shoes, actress Charlize Theron poses in a black tank top, with duct tape covering her mouth. The caption reads: “Speak No Evil.” Another ad shows Ziggy Marley with his hands covering his ears. The caption: “Hear No Evil.” Another has Wynonna Judd with her eyes closed and the caption: “See No Evil.” There are now more than 25 ads in the series, each with a different celebrity, and not one of them shows a pair of shoes. But it’s one of the most profitable advertising campaigns that Aldo has ever run.

The ad works because it’s a call to action: The celebrities wear “empowerment” tags that sell for $5 at any Aldo store (and at www.youthaids-aldo.org). One hundred percent of the net proceeds benefit YouthAIDS, the global health education initiative that I created as part of the not-for-profit organization Population Services International (PSI). YouthAIDS/PSI uses the money from those tag sales for HIV prevention efforts in more than 60 countries. And while you are at Aldo, you can pick up a new pair of wedges.

An observer might assume that the Aldo campaign is just another example of corporate social responsibility (CSR). Indeed, Aldo has supported AIDS causes since the mid-1980s — a time when, because of the stigma the disease carried, very few companies were interested in visibly combating its spread. But Aldo’s campaign is a different kind of promotion entirely. It’s an example of “cause-related marketing,” in which brand promotion and social engagement are aligned. Aldo’s ads advance their own marketing purposes while opening their customers’ eyes to the AIDS pandemic and raising money for health-related programs.

Cause-related marketing draws its power from the fact that the same marketing techniques that sell shoes or cigarettes can also influence human behavior in other ways. I should know. Before I started YouthAIDS, I was an advertising executive in Eastern Europe, using celebrities and youth culture to market cigarettes. Today, YouthAIDS/PSI applies the same marketing methods to overcome cultural resistance and encourage people to lead healthy lives.

I made the shift in 1999, during a short visit to Africa, when for the first time I saw the truly devastating effect of AIDS. I had already managed a national AIDS prevention campaign in Romania, so I knew that the media could communicate disease prevention. But suddenly I realized the power of a global initiative. AIDS is in many ways a young person’s disease. It is spread when people have unprotected sex, either because they do not know enough about the disease, or they are not able to say no, or they simply do not want to use a condom. To stop the spread of the disease, one must reach large numbers of young people and change their behavior, and I realized I could help do that. I changed from a merchant of death to a marketer of life. If corporate leaders everywhere had the same kind of revelation, tapping not into their cash or sense of obligation (as CSR often does), but rather into their unique skills and capabilities, then we could truly make a difference against this disease — and against many other problems as well.

The Golden Brand
Professionally, I have specialized in what agencies call “below-the-line” integrated marketing: the alternatives to mass-market advertising, such as promotions and events that create buzz and intrigue, particularly among young people. My first big job, in the early 1990s, was at a Russian publishing house, where I was assigned to help launch the Russian version of Cosmopolitan magazine. We recruited actress Sharon Stone to come to Moscow, and it was the first time I fully understood the impact of celebrity. People really cared that a big Hollywood star would come to their country, and they translated that feeling into loyalty toward the magazine. Cosmopolitan’s Russian edition is now the highest-circulation women’s magazine — not only in Russia, but in Europe.

 
 
 
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