By Erin Lewis
When we read that Belvedere Vodka & Product (Red), with the help of Usher, were launching a special edition vodka bottle to “help eliminate HIV/AIDS,” we hoped it was a joke. Unfortunately, this is for real. The specially designed vodka label reads: “(PRODUCT)RED HELPS SAVE LIVES.”
Even if 50% of proceeds go to the Global Fund, this product choice seems a wildly insensitive and hypocritical move. Rather than saving lives, alcohol is the cause of 4% of deaths worldwide- even more than AIDS! Alcohol is a causal factor in 60 types of diseases and injuries.
Beyond this, alcohol use plays a major role in HIV transmission. Alcohol can cloud decision-making abilities and lead to high-risk sexual behaviors or drug use that can spread HIV. Alcohol is also quite harmful to people who are HIV positive; it can lead to failure of medications and other complications.
In a statement, the President of Belvedere said, “As one of the world’s leading spirit brands, we are in a unique position to harness the power of our customers to benefit the millions of people who are at risk, or are living, with HIV. We want to raise consumer awareness and incite more global action to eliminate AIDS in Africa. Our message is simple – (PRODUCT)RED helps saves lives.” The (PRODUCT) RED campaign recently also added the Penfold brand of wines to its lineup. This trend is worrisome.
The real message should be about the negative effects of alcohol advertising and that drinking can put you at risk for HIV. As this recent reaction from the Marin Institute puts it: “If Usher and PRODUCT(RED) really wanted to help eliminate HIV/AIDS in Africa, they would counteract the oversaturation of alcohol advertising, rather than promoting it. Instead, it seems that Belvedere and its parent company…are targeting the populations at highest risk of HIV, to increase sales and consumption of a product that increases both the risk of contracting HIV and the progression of HIV/AIDS disease.”
In the end, it is not just one brand of vodka that draws on celebrity or positive claims to find buyers. Next time you see press for Snoop Dogg’s latest alco-pop endorsement or a TV commercial for a low-calorie beer, use it as a chance to think critically by asking:
1. Who created this message?
2. What creative techniques are used to attract my attention?
3. How might different people understand this message differently?
4. What values, lifestyles and points of view are represented in, or omitted from, this message?
5. Why is this message being sent?
By Erin Lewis, Health Educator, Prevention Education, Jewish Community Services,