In this post, Walaa al Husban explores the contradictions of humanitarian action in a world in which even the suffering of children can be commoditized.
‘Stop, Think, Give’: these three words set next to a picture of the classic Bvlgari B.zero1 ring popped up in one of my social media accounts recently. In addition to their powerful symbolism, my attention was caught by the Save the Children logo that is engraved in the luxurious line of jewellery. Researching more about this, ‘Stop, Think, Give’ is the theme that Bvlgari and Save the Children use to describe the custom-designed Save the Children jewellery collection. The alleged objectives of the partnership between Bvlgari and Save the Children involve the donation of part of the profits from sales to support ‘the world’s most vulnerable children and youth’. To amplify this humanitarian sensibility, many celebrities were cast in their campaign wearing Bvlgari’s Save the Children Jewellery. While, others were invited to do field visits for the organization of projects in different countries, so they can raise awareness about the positive impact of this partnership on the life of those distant ‘others’. To validate this humanitarian cause-collaboration, which is referred to as ’cause-related marketing’, images of the ‘unnamed’ children were being published to bolster the enterprise’s sentimental narratives.
Instead of simply accepting and asserting the ethical dimensions of the Bvlgari/Save the Children jewellery collection partnership, I would like to invite you to ‘Stop, Think, and Connote’. I therefore begin with the logic behind this humanitarian ’cause-related marketing’, and its normalized use of images of children as an emotional pull for marketing the humanitarian show.
Humanitarianism as a commercialised business: Buy one for a cause
‘Because we know that, just like a precious piece of jewelery, a wish is first imagined’, says BVLGARI CEO Jean Christophe. The logic of creating and marketing Bvlgari/Save the Children jewellery is based on assigning a set of moral values to the product itself. In purchasing this line of jewellery, you are promoted to a ‘compassionate consumer’ who performs ethical action to end the misery of the unfortunate children, thus linking mainstream consumption with the moral code of humanitarianism: one that is concerned with alleviating the suffering and rescuing the distant ‘others’. The commodification of suffering focuses on the charitable idea of giving and is associated with the assumption that the well-off carry some ethical responsibility towards helping the less well-off. Buy one to give to another (human being). Such rationale disciplines the principled moral world of humanitarianism into accepting the claims of neoliberalism – that of marketization, privatization and globalization, as a solution to issues of injustice. The overall aim is to generate the most desirable outcomes for both, humanitarianism and the marketplace.
This newly branded humanitarianism is celebrated by both private sectors (here Bvlgari) and humanitarian organisations (here Save the Children). Apart from raising funds for a cause, with its assumingly absolute benefit to the suffering children, there are other crucial implications for the formation of both. For Save the Children, such a collaboration will generate a lasting relationship of reciprocity between donors and recipients, thus sustaining a renewable source of fund; for Bvlgari, while alleviating misfortune, their product will help them to expand their consumer reach in the global marketplace. By attaching their vision to an established humanitarian organization, the company achieves public recognition in media and humanitarian spaces alike. Although many who purchased Bvlgari’/Save the Children line jewellery complained about the high price of the line compared to their quality, they also expressed personal satisfaction for having contributed to a charitable cause. For example, in one of the reviews, the person stated: ‘I came to like this Save The Children collection from Bvlgari…Once I came home, it dawned on me that I spent so much for just sterling silver!!! Not even 18k gold (well, at least part of my money is going to charity)’
Distant children as the new currency for the moral marketplace
The image of a child holding the Bvlgari’s Save the Children ring features in the Save the Children website. The narrow lens focuses on capturing the eye of the child looking directly to the camera through the ring, so as to suggest that children’s hopes and dreams rely on you purchasing Bvlgari’s Save the Children B. zero1 ring. The rationale of this commercialization is twofold: on the one hand, it turns children into objects of self-branding and self-marketing; on the other, it reinforces imaginary stereotypes of the ‘needy’ distant children, who depend on foreign humanitarian aid.
Fabrizio Ferri, ran the #RaiseYourHand campaign that featured many Western celebrities wearing Bvlgari Save the Children jewellery. He stated that the aim of this campaign is to:
Raise our hand to signal our presence, our interest, our attention, our participation. To signal that we do not hide, that we have no fear, that we believe we have an answer. Raising our hand while wearing the ring or the bracelet symbolizes our support for Bulgari’s effort to raise funds for Save the Children
This message reveals a lot about how Western market-based humanitarianism appropriates the suffering of ‘others’, whereby, the solidarity with distant children is more about ‘our presence’, ‘our interest’, ‘our attention’, ‘our participation’, ‘our support’ – all things centring on Western self-evaluation and reflecting the individual emotional experience. Contrariwise, the identity of the children is reduced to a documented number that directs the public’s attention to the market’s charitable contribution. This contribution is usually endorsed through the language of need, which side lines questions of right and justice. For example, emphasis is placed on the fact that the funds raised from the Bvlgari/Save the Children jewellery campaign have been invested into children and youth empowerment programs, emergency response, and poverty reduction. This model of intervention narrows the scope of the anticipated humanitarian practices to an apolitical routinized form of action that deals with symptoms of deprivation rather than its causes, with symbolic capital rather than the conundrums of equality and recognition.
To conclude, the role of ’cause-related marketing’ in raising funds for humanitarian crisis is not deniable, nor wholly dismissed. However, it generates ethical questions, when the suffering children are used as means to promote sales and support unduly the growth of the so-called ‘moral market’, and when said children are stripped of the specificity of their historical and cultural values and turned into a calculated figure. Ultimately, the practice objectifies them. Their value as pitiable objects, for which customers ‘feel’, embraces and normalizes the practice of humanitarian marketing as ‘absolute’, without questioning its normative pillars in context.
Walaa AL Husban is Doctoral Researcher at the School of Sociology and Social Policy, University of Leeds. Her research interests focus on the paradoxes of humanitarianism and its practical challenges, with emphasis on bringing a sociological grounding for discourse politics of suffering, compassion, rescuing, and aid. The title of her PhD is ‘The paradox of Humanitarianism: Sociological Readings of its Politics’ (under the supervision of Dr Rodanthi Tzanelli and Professor Salman Sayyid).