Pink ribbon pandemic

Fry your eggs in a pink Teflon frying pan, floss your teeth with pink dental floss, or snack on breast cancer broccoli. Consumers are surrounded by a plethora of pink. The pink breast cancer ribbon is wrapping itself around thousands of products, persuading consumers to ‘buy for the cure’.

Originally a symbol of hope and awareness for the disease, the pink ribbon has turned into a marketing opportunity for corporations. The pink ribbon originated in 1991 at Race for the Cure in New York City; every participant was given a ribbon in honor of breast cancer survivors. In recent years, companies have been using the ribbon as a marketing tool to increase sales – promising that a portion of revenue will go towards breast cancer research. It’s called cause marketing.

This marketing strategy is a chance for companies to associate their products with a good cause; essentially increasing sales by targeting consumers’ emotions. It’s working. A 2010 survey conducted by Boston-based Cone LLC shows that Americans respond to cause marketing. It reports that 85% of consumers acknowledge that they have a more positive image of a company when it supports a cause they care about, and 80% say they would likely switch brands to one that supports a cause.

Although cause marketing may be appealing for many consumers, some breast cancer survivors do not feel the same way. “Breast cancer is a disease, not a marketing opportunity,” says survivor Jennie Sather. Sather is an avid blogger who has been fighting back on the ‘pink ribbon exploitation’ of women with breast cancer for years. She identifies as a spokeswomen for the “I hate pink effort”. Sather is appalled by the number and variety of pink products on the market and writes on her blog that, “rather than ‘raising awareness’ or even working so hard to find a cure, we should be working to change behavior.”

Sather feels pink ribbon products are actually doing the opposite of what they are promoting. These companies are called pinkwashers – companies that purport to care about breast cancer by promoting a pink ribboned product, but manufacture products linked to the disease. For example, in 2007, Ford, Mercedes and BMW vehicles were sold, touting to raise money for breast cancer. In reality, the cars themselves produced air pollutants linked to the disease.

A number of other companies have been associated with such behavior. KFC advertised ‘Pink Buckets for the Cure’ – but greasy, fried, chicken thighs hardly scream healthy. The US Food and Drug Administration acknowledged a high acrylamide content in KFC food; acrylamide is classified as a ‘probable human carcinogen’ – a cancer causing agent. Curing breast cancer is not KFC’s main priority.

San Francisco- based organization Think Before You Pink brings attention to these pinkwasher companies. “We are critical of the corporations that we feel are taking advantage of people’s desire to do something good and are playing on their emotions,” says Kim Irish, Program Director.

Think Before You Pink is a project of Breast Cancer Action and was launched in 2002 in response to the growing number of pink ribbon products on the market. The organization encourages consumers to think critically of pink product promotions. “We just want consumers to be as informed as possible before they buy pink products,” says Irish.

The organization offers a list of questions that one should consider before buying pink. Examples include: How much money actually goes toward breast cancer programs and services? What types of programs are being supported? What is the company doing to assure that its products are not contributing to the breast cancer epidemic?

There may not be clear answers to these questions; it can be uncertain where the money is going, and how many dollars are actually going towards the cause. In some cases, the information is simply not obtainable. “Clear, straightforward, publicly available information regarding breast cancer cause marketing is seriously lacking,” says Madeline Bird in her research report,Profits In Pink: Breast Cancer Cause Marketing In Canada. She identifies a major lack of transparency in breast cancer cause marketing in Canada.

Her research proves this hypothesis. The Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation (CBCF) is linked with the largest number of breast cancer cause marketing campaigns in Canada. Of 30 corporations Bird investigated, few would reveal any information about their relationship with the CBCF. Additionally, almost all refused to disclose what portion of their proceeds are donated. Many companies including Fabricland and Swarovski don’t know how the money they raise is being used within the CBCF.

The pink ribbon is not trademarked, so any corporation is free to tie it to their product. In turn, every corporation who uses the ribbon uses it differently. Some companies only donate a small portion of the proceeds to breast cancer, while others stop donating once they reach a limit.

This was exemplified in a campaign to ‘Clean for the Cure’ in 2002 when Eureka sold vacuums and donated proceeds to a breast cancer organization. What consumers did not know was that only one dollar from the 200 dollar vacuum was donated to breast cancer research – less than one percent of the cost. Moreover, Eureka capped its annual contribution from the sales at $250,000; money raised after that maximum was reached stayed with the corporation.

Breast cancer advocates say that consumers must be wary when purchasing pink.   “Pick the facility that suits your priorities, and write them a cheque rather than buying a box of Kleenex or some gasoline or a pink Mix-Master or a pink Scotch tape dispenser,” says Carol Sector, board member of Breast Cancer Action Montreal. “We don’t need to get sucked in to the pink ribbon vortex.”

There are dozens of options for those looking to donate directly. The American Institute of Philanthropy identifies the Breast Cancer Research Foundation as the highest ranked charity – devoting at least 75% of their revenue to their stated mission. Among other American organizations,Think Before You Pink accepts individual donations. In Canada, organizations such as the Canadian Cancer Society, or local Breast Cancer Action groups are credible.

Although many are seeing the negative effects of the pink ribbon prevalence, others feel it is beneficial for breast cancer awareness. Pam Klein is a breast cancer survivor from Regina who supports the pink ribbon campaign. She feels that any donation helps. “Anything that can bring awareness to the disease and can bring additional funds, and can move us forward with either research or a cure, is a good thing,” says Klein.

After being diagnosed with breast cancer, Klein organized an event that would promote breast cancer awareness at a local level. ‘The Power of Pink’ annual event celebrates all things pink and each event typically raises $50,000 for breast cancer. Klein feels this is the best way to donate her dollars towards the cause. “I’m determined that it goes to something very specific and I can control those funds,” says Klein. All money raised at the event goes directly to the Breast Assessment Centre at a local Regina hospital.

The breast cancer ribbon has helped to significantly increase awareness of the disease over the last 20 years. This accomplishment should be applauded, but stocking up on pink breast cancer goodies is not going to stop the growing incidence of breast cancer. Even though you own a Mix-Master with a pink ribbon, an estimated 23, 200 Canadian women will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year. Purchasing a pink tube of lipstick will not prevent the deaths of 5, 300 Canadian women. The Canadian Cancer Society confirms that one in nine women is expected to develop breast cancer in her lifetime. Pink ribbon shopping is not decreasing these numbers.

Breast cancer advocates suggest moving away from pink ribbon awareness campaigns, and focusing on prevention efforts instead. “Awareness is all well and good, but we really think at this point in the epidemic, people are aware of breast cancer. We really need action now,” says Irish. Breast cancer organizations want to focus on stopping breast cancer before it starts.

Supporting the cause through shopping is better than not donating at all, but if you want your money to be used as effectively as possible, make a straight donation. If a donation is not in your budget, there are alternative ways to help prevent breast cancer. Think Before You PinkBreast Cancer Action Montreal, and other breast cancer organizations have web-based campaigns where people can sign petitions or write letters to pinkwasher companies.

Next time you feel the need to indulge in pink ribbon paraphernalia, consider the other options. Take a stand against companies who sell products containing carcinogens, and make sure your money is going straight to the cause. Although it seems like a rosy idea, your pink purchases may not be helping to end breast cancer.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: