Annie Lennox : Exploiting the HIV Brand

Annie Lennox joins the increasing group of ageing pop stars to re-brand their legitimacy and navigate their path to canonisation through association with “celebrity diseases” – and being linked with HIV/AIDS is the most obvious choice for the artistic community. Wearing a T-shirt with “HIV Positive” across it is almost distasteful. Where are the celebrities wearing T-shirts with “Colon Cancer” or “Malaria” on them?

Elton John, who attempted the most cynical act of “celebrity disease” branding, is there amongst them. His desire to adopt an HIV-positive Ukrainian boy is one of the most transparent acts of exploitative publicity seeking that I have seen – fortunately the authorities said no. Elton and Annie, along with Bono, are in celebrity “heaven-dom” along with Mother Theresa, and Nelson Mandela – being the band of untouchables where it’s a modern-day taboo to question or criticise them without fear of being vilified for being morally bankrupt.

This coupled with the curious “sanctity” that surrounds the whole HIV/AIDS bandwagon which treats people as though they are almost “apostolic”. We talk in hushed, revered tones, about them as though they have been struck down by a disease that only affects heroes – it is as though it is a cult disease with millions of “helpless victims” , that brings Positive publicity to all that touch it – the ultimate celebrity fashion accessory
Ms Lennox today received an OBE for fighting AIDS and poverty in Africa. Her SING campaign provides ” A voice for for HIV/AIDS women and children” – so not for men?

Continuing her air of reverence on her website she states “Several years ago I personally witnessed Nelson Mandela standing in front of his prison cell on Robben Island addressing the world’s press. His message was that the pandemic of HIV/AIDS in Africa was, in fact, a genocide. Since that time I resolved to do as much as I can to bring attention to the HIV/AIDS crisis”

The world does not need more attention or funding on HIV/AIDS; there is enough attention on this particular disease – it is not the biggest killer of people in the world.

She also goes on to say that women and children are the front-line victims, but that her prime focus of attention is people in the UK. Her efforts could have prevented the 3 children, and 88 women that died of AIDS in 2009 in the UK ( alot less than the number who died falling off a ladder)

I wonder, did she ask Mr Mandela what he had done about HIV/AIDS whilst he was President for 5 years. To quote from the Guardian:

When Mandela became President, he was preoccupied by the tasks of reconciliation and resisted calls to lead a major campaign against Aids. Edwin Cameron, a courageous gay South African judge who was found to be HIV-positive, became a prominent campaigner against Aids, and later reluctantly but firmly criticised Mandela’s inaction.

‘He, more than anyone else, could have reached into the minds and behaviour of young people,’ said Cameron. ‘A message from this man of saintlike, in some ways almost godlike, stature, would have been effective. He didn’t do it. In 199 ways, he was our country’s saviour. In the 200th way, he was not.’

Mandela has also confirmed that he regrets not taking action when he could have done.

His use of the term genocide is inaccurate and sensationalist – it only applies where there is “…intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group” if he was trying to suggest that inaction was tantamount to genocide then presumably he would render himself guilty.

It’s not quite clear why her campaign is only in favour of women, and children other than to promote her Earth-Mother/feminist brand as well. As we all know it is men who, represent the largest population of AIDS deaths in the UK ( approx 66%)

People will cry out that it is a different problem in Africa – it certainly is. According to UNICEF the top 5 reasons for children dying is Acute Respiratory Infections, diarrhoea, measles, malaria and malnutrition. Poverty and the failure to ensure universal access to basic social services are to blame. Complications related to pregnancy and childbirth kill more than half a million women each year – more than one every minute -and injure and disable many more.
Also another major cause of death in Africa is road-traffic accidents which is three times the rate in the developed world.

In Africa due to the conditions, and availability of quality health care, AIDS is determined symptomatically ( i.e. not by specific clinical test) – this is known as the Bangui Test. The symptoms are : Chronic diarrhoea for a month, 10% weight loss, intermittent or constant fever for a month. Additionally it should show 1 or more of the following signs: History of Herpes zoster, persistent cough, itchy skin rashes, thrush, herpes virus infection, swollen lymph glands. The HIV statistics are based on testing pregnant women attending a health clinic which are then extrapolated mathematically to determine the death toll – not particularly clinical, and explains why they keep revising the numbers down.

It is not unreasonable to expect that thorough and accurate diagnosis may be difficult and when health funding is inevitably based on AIDS cases, then the motivation would be to over report incidences. African countries are not known for their high moral efficacy in these sorts of matters.
In her attempt to hold back the tide of AIDS in Africa she has raised £1m since 2007. That equates to about 4p for every person with HIV, and is an infinitesimally small drop in the ocean compared to the billions pumped into the AIDS industry ($15.6 billion in 2008 ) . The kudos that she will get from being associated with this cause, and to the Lennox brand, will be much greater than this – I suspect.

The HIV/AIDS industry is funded disproportionate to the numbers uniquely affected by this disease/syndrome so further funding and awareness is not necessary ( over 30 times more funding is given to AIDS vs Heart Disease, Cancer and Diabetes in the US) – and certainly not from a publicity seeking celebrity. There are many more diseases, conditions and causes of death which kill more people throughout the world which are less “sexy” and have no cult status and would benefit from valuable publicity and much-needed funding.

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4 replies

  1. Um…regardless of what you think of Annie Lennox, you have heaps of facts wrong in this article – for example, you look at cause of death – HIV patients are immunocompromised, so they don’t die of HIV, they die of bog standard illnesses…. If you don’t get the women focus, you need to know a little more about African society.

    • Thanks for your comment – I am fully aware that people do not die of AIDS per se but of specified illnesses when immunocompromised. I am aware of your point re:women in African society – that wasn’t really the point of my article.

  2. Please consider the possibility that celebrities are perhaps trying to open audiences eyes to the stigmatism which HIV positive individuals are subjected to on a daily basis. By wearing a t-shirt that states HIV positive in clean white letters boldly and clearly sends a message that they are not ashamed of it, and are prepared to draw attention to an ignored and judged illness.

    • Thanks Ray, I accept that…but when more people die in the UK of hernias than they do of AIDS, and when the new infection rate is miniscule compared to other conditions then one can’t help but think that there is a “fashion” around the support of AIDS rather than one based on the real number of people suffering from this disease compared to others in the world. She could have T-shirt about eliminating TB, Malaria, Heart Disease, Cancer….so why AIDS when it really does not affect that many people – in reality! It is about personal PR !

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