Bono is hoping you'll buy into some big ideas. This past weekend, commemorating World AIDS Day, we saw a gearing up of his many global projects. In response to the recent revisions of infection rates, his advocacy group DATA is calling for sustained attention from G8 leaders on HIV/AIDS. The celebrity-centred ONE Campaign is pressing U.S. presidential candidates to make commitments to funding global health initiatives. New merchandise in his contentious Product Red line is hitting store shelves as malls and parking lots are bursting with rabid holiday shoppers. Bono wants you to buy into the material as well as the ideal. But is all of this just hype sprinkled with a little glitter?
It's easy to be cynical of celebrities shilling for global causes, or even disregard this sort of activity entirely. Where do celebrities get the authority to tell us how the world should be? After all, there are many entertainers parading as activists purely for self-interest. Paris Hilton is the latest in a long list of glamorous enthusiasts who have tried to tie their name to a cause as a way of restarting their career with little grasp of the issues at hand. The flaws of celebrity-centred advocacy should not be glossed over - there is a considerable amount of superficiality attached to it.
But Bono has proved that rising above much of this criticism is possible. More than anyone else, he has the sustained presence, the sense of purpose and, above all, the network extending from Anderson Cooper to Bill Gates to George W. Bush. What he has done is elevate the issues of health and poverty on the policy agenda, while trying to bring awareness to a wider audience. You need look no further than newsstand tabloids to see these global issues are getting attention in the most unlikely places. In turn, he is getting support from an extraordinary range of leaders in politics, business and entertainment alike. Animating a brand of moral global citizenship, Bono has thrown away the diplomatic playbook and built his campaigns on a hybrid of networked buzz and bite.
On the surface, support has come from companies in the Product Red initiative. Despite criticisms of this campaign as a distorted form of good corporate citizenship, Bono's ability to assemble a group of famous brands is significant. But his real potency comes from his connections to the charitable rich. Sharing the 2005 Time "Persons of the Year" designation with Bill and Melinda Gates, Bono has developed deep roots with the world's most generous couple, as well as with other mega-philanthropists such as Warren Buffett and George Soros.
Significant backing has also come from other celebrities active on the international stage. There are the Angelina Jolies and George Clooneys, but the depth of Bono's network comes from the association with Wyclef Jean, rapper and prominent member of the Haitian diaspora, or Youssou N'Dour, Senegal's famous singer and champion of intercivilizational dialogue. Far more than classic diplomats, Bono has access to the popular media as outlets for his message. CNN and Vanity Fair, for example, have bought in to his initiative in a big way. In doing so, he has tried to help bridge citizens and statecraft.
This established power base has given his message significant bite beyond what might be expected of a celebrity diplomat. He has garnered coveted invitations to G8 summits, and was helicoptered in like a head of state. Perhaps surprising has been the degree to which world leaders themselves have bought in to Bono. Mr. Bush, Tony Blair and Paul Martin were all quick to embrace him, thinking a well-timed photo op with the rock star would be mutually beneficial. As Mr. Martin learned, however, Bono's sting is as potent as his embrace.
But the big question remains: Who exactly is Bono's intended audience? He has sold his vision to an extraordinary range of high-profile power brokers. Yet, beyond this glamour, he's aiming for more general buy-in. For Product Red to fly, he needs customers. For pressure on world leaders, he needs continued mass mobilization.
Yet, there remains a noticeable disconnect between the activities within his rich-and-famous network and the street level. Many people have tired of the barrage of exhortation and the sense of guilt. And thanks to this apparent fatigue, Bono himself has become as much a figure of jokes and critical remarks as adulation.
This push-back may reflect a sensible resistance to hype, but it may also represent a disregard of big ideas on how to solve global problems. If we are tired of Bono, are we tired of the world?