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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

This holiday season, some companies are giving consumers a chance to feel altruistic as they spend. If you buy a special red i-Pod or use a red American Express card, some of the money will help fund treatment of people with HIV and AIDS in Africa. What many customers may not know is how profitable the red campaign is to the companies participating.

NPR's Brenda Wilson reports.

BRENDA WILSON: Dr. Richard Feachem, the director of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and malaria, sports a red Armani watch on his wrist. A red Motorola phone is clipped to his belt. He has a red American Express card in his wallet that carries a red insignia stitched into the leather.

Dr. RICHARD FEACHEM (Director, Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria): Within a year, we've gone from idea to many products in many shops, and of course those products are proving very popular. Gap keeps selling out. The Motorola red phones are very popular. The red i-Pod is the hottest item for Christmas, so it's really taken off.

WILSON: The idea, he says, was to raise the awareness of the ordinary person about the fight against AIDS in Africa, and to develop a more substantial flow of money from the private sector. U2's Bono and Bobby Shriver, who is in charge of Product Red, came up with the idea of a kind of movement.

(Soundbite of ad)

PEOPLE: All things being equal. They are not. As first world consumers, we have tremendous power. What we collectively choose to buy or not to buy can change the course of life and history on this planet. Red is that simple an idea. And that powerful.

WILSON: So far, more than $12 million have been raised in the worldwide campaign, providing treatment for people with HIV and care for orphans in Rwanda and Swaziland. And Feachem says the campaign is expanding.

Dr. FEACHEM: This is not corporate philanthropy. This has to be good for the businesses of the individual companies, because only then will it be large and sustainable. And the people of Africa need these funds to be sustainable. Secondly, it has to be good for the customer. I'm buying a good phone, and I'm getting a good credit card. I'm buying good clothes that I would want anyway at a good price. So again, for the consumer, this is not a charitable act. It's an act of conscientious shopping. It identifies me with the cause.

Ms. RASNA WARAH (Correspondent, Daily Nation, Kenya): It's literally like saying three Hail Mary's.

WILSON: Rasna Warah is a columnist for the Daily Nation newspaper in Kenya.

Ms. WARAH: It's - the only way you can feel less guilty about your lifestyle, about the choices you've made, about your extravagant and ostentatious lifestyle is if you pretend or look like you're helping Africa. And I'm sorry, the continent cannot be used to ease the conscience of, you know, rich white folk in Beverly Hills or wherever. Africa is being used again to make someone else look good.

WILSON: Feachem says some companies, including Motorola and the Gap, are tying to address that criticism.

Dr. FEACHEM: The Gap red t-shirts, which are the kind of flagship of the Gap red line, and they've got all these amazing red words on them, those t-shirts are made of African cotton, and they're actually manufactured in Lesotho by young women who work in garment factories in Lesotho who were about 35 percent HIV positive.

WILSON: That's a new twist on cost-related marketing, but the idea has been around for decades. Dwight Burlingame at the University of Indiana's Center on Philanthropy traces it to a 1983 American Express card campaign. The company donated part of the income from credit card transactions and new cardholders to renovate the Statue of Liberty.

Dr. DWIGHT BURLINGAME (University of Indiana): That produced $1.7 million for the Statue of Liberty campaign. It also increased the use of American Express card by about 26 percent, so a lot of companies took notice.

WILSON: Among the better known are Ben and Jerry's ice cream, Patagonia and Starbucks. Burlingame says that conservative estimates suggests that over 500 large and small companies have discovered the benefits of being associated with a good cause. Burlingame agrees with Warah that there's a danger that this trend could undercut traditional sources of charity.

Dr. BURLINGAME: Will your normal givers who give to you annually and for your cause suddenly decide, well, I don't need to do that anymore because I'm doing this, you know, I'm buying the product?

WILSON: And there's another downside.

Dr. BURLINGAME: How much is really going to the charity that you want to support? Would it have been more efficient to be contributing directly rather than through your product? That's always a concern, I think, on any charitable initiative. And do you know where the money is going? And it's hard to find that out sometimes.

WILSON: In the case of the red campaign, the conduit for the money is the Global Fund. But there's no breakdown of the contributions from each company, a decision that was made, Feachem says, so that companies would not have to worry about competing for charitable buyers. And he says, it won't be until late spring that the Global Fund knows how well the red campaign did this Christmas.

Brenda Wilson, NPR News.

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