In this month of all months, in Pinktober, in the holy month of All Things Pink out there, author and cancer patient Mary Elizabeth Williams dared to post a brave if not downright shocking perspective in Salon called The Smug Morality of Breast Cancer Month.
She included this jibe at a pink ribbon campaign that she describes as an “increasingly pervasive branding opportunity”:
“Perhaps it’s time to consider what this glut of pink says about our attitudes about the meritocracy of disease, and the ways in which we dispense compassion.
“This year lung cancer will kill triple the number of people that breast cancer does. Ovarian, cervical and prostate cancer will kill about 20,000 more individuals than breast cancer. And alcoholism, addiction and depression will this year continue to kill not just via the overt channels of overdose and suicide, but in their brutal toll on overall health.”
And let’s not forget to add to Mary Elizabeth’s deadly list heart disease, the #1 killer of women. It was only after my own heart attack that I learned heart disease kills six times more women than breast cancer does each year, kills more women than all forms of cancer combined, and kills more women than men. But targeting any disease as a “branding opportunity” is not about being anti-pink. Instead, as Mary Elizabeth Williams warns us:
“We run the risk of ennobling those with certain sicknesses while stigmatizing others.”
Yes, we heart patients also have our own month for raising awareness (February is Heart Month) and our own colour (red) and even our very own awareness-raising lapel pin (the Red Dress). But that’s where our two branding opportunity similarities end.
I’ve worked in the public relations field for 30+ years, and I have to tell you that my colleagues working over in breast cancer fundraising are doing an outstanding job of raising awareness and money for their cause. It is indeed a world of pink out there.
So what can those of us wanting to educate women about their actual #1 health threat learn from the amazing success of breast cancer’s “pinkwashing” campaigns? Here are a few observations:
1. “It’s not my fault” – First, it helps to have one of those diagnoses that strikes innocents out of the blue, just as breast cancer does. Or does it? Emerging research links increased breast cancer risks with lifestyle behaviours like alcohol consumption, lack of exercise, or being overweight/obese (especially for post-menopausal women). If women were truly serious about fighting deadly cancers, we would be all over the far more dangerous lung cancer, not breast cancer. But lung cancer is one of those diagnoses, rightly or wrongly, that is largely perceived as a self-inflicted condition that can be justifiably blamed on the patient’s lifestyle choices. We may also have felt a twinge of sympathy towards people who have throat cancer, but we’ve also heard that throat and mouth cancers are largely due to heavy drinking and smoking.
Mary Elizabeth Williams is one who lumps heart disease in with other self-inflicted conditions like throat or lung cancer, as she points out in her Salon essay that “the leading non-accident-related cause of death in North America is heart disease, frequently a diet and lifestyle-related problem“. Is she correct? Read this first before you agree: Heart Attack: Did You Bring This On Yourself?
2. “Pick a sexy cause” – Breast cancer, unlike other health threats to women, has been described as “loaded” by The National Alliance of Breast Cancer Organization’s former executive director Amy Langer. She once told The New York Times magazine:
“Breast cancer is all about body image, it’s about nurturing – it’s certainly about femininity.”
Heart disease, by comparison, is apparently just not that feminine. And unlike diseases like AIDS, breast cancer is free of what some marketers euphemistically call “lifestyle issues.” PR consultant Carol Cone of Boston says simply:
“Companies want to support breast cancer. Breast cancer is safe.”
3. “Get the Big Guys on board” – Breast cancer meshed very nicely with the corporate world’s discovery during the mid-1980s of cause-related marketing. Research had proved that, given the same cost and quality, more than half of consumers would switch from a particular store or brand to one associated with a good cause.
Consider Campbell’s soup, for example. In 2006, Advertising Age reported on a Campbell’s soup cause-related marketing success story – “turning its iconic soup can on its ear by replacing the traditional red-and-white label with pink-and-white, and adding a pink ribbon for Breast Cancer Awareness Month”. The result? Campbell’s sales doubled for their pink-clad varieties that month, and even motivated store managers to display the soups outside the soup aisle. Campbell donated 3.5 cents per pink can to its breast cancer charity in exchange for its doubled order. But the financial payoff was huge for the company, even after the breast cancer donation was deducted.
Some breast cancer advocates, patients and survivors are now questioning whether the pink ribbon movement has gone too far. Last year, pink products included a pink taser and a Smith & Wesson gun with a pink handle. Really? Seriously? Many companies seek higher sales from cause-related packaging without pledging much – if anything – in return. It’s left up to shoppers to read the labels on pink-packaged products and determine if their purchases will actually help a breast cancer charity or foundation. Barbara Brenner, the outspoken executive director of a really terrific site called Breast Cancer Action, told a Daily Finance interviewer:
“If the label says ‘Money will go to support breast cancer’ – well, what does that mean? If it just says it ‘supports breast cancer awareness’ without being specific, it’s not going anywhere!”
Breast cancer “pinkwashing” has an impressive history in corporate brand marketing, according to the non-profit Think Before You Pink, a project of Breast Cancer Action. TBYP was launched in 2002 in response to the growing concern about the overwhelming number of pink ribbon products and promotions on the market (what author Barbara Ehrenreich calls the “cult of pink kitsch”). Their campaign calls for more transparency and accountability by companies that take part in breast cancer fundraising, and encourages consumers to ask questions about pink ribbon promotions.
The history of the pink ribbon goes like this: 20 years ago, the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation used to hand out bright pink sun visors to breast cancer survivors running in its Race for the Cure. But in the fall of 1991, the Foundation gave out pink ribbons to every participant in its New York City race. A few months later, the editors of Self magazine in New York were planning their second annual Breast Cancer Awareness Month issue. They came up with an inspiration – create a ribbon and enlist the cosmetics giant Estée Lauder to distribute it in New York City stores.
Then Self learned of a woman named Charlotte Haley, who was already doing a peach-colored ribbon for breast cancer awareness. Charlotte, who was the granddaughter, sister, and mother of women who had battled breast cancer, had been hand-making her peach-colored loops at her dining room table. Each set of five peach ribbons came with a card saying:
“The National Cancer Institute’s annual budget is $1.8 billion, yet only 5% goes for cancer prevention. Help us wake up our legislators by wearing this ribbon.”
Charlotte was strictly grassroots, handing out thousands of her cards at her local stores and writing to prominent women. Her message spread entirely by word of mouth.
Then Self magazine from Manhattan called. They told Charlotte: “‘We want to go in with you on this and we’ll give you national attention.” But spunky Charlotte surprised the big city editors, according to Self’s editor-in chief Alexandra Penney at the time:
“She wanted nothing to do with us – said we were too commercial.”
By September 1992, it was reported that Estée Lauder had experienced “problems” trying to work with Charlotte Haley. Self asked her to relinquish the concept of the ribbon.
“We asked our lawyers and they said, ‘ Come up with another colour’.”
They chose pink.
Within a year, Charlotte Haley’s loop of peach ribbon was history, and Estée Lauder makeup counters had handed out millions of their pink ribbons.
Dr. H. Gilbert Welch of the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice is critical of the sponsorship of Breast Cancer Awareness Month by the drug company, AstraZeneca. He told the Los Angeles Times this month:
“It’s a common problem with disease awareness campaigns and patient advocacy groups. If you look into their funding sources, you’ll often find a pharmaceutical company or device maker or diagnostic screening manufacturer who stands to benefit from an expansion in the number of people with the condition.”
Dr. Welch calls AstraZeneca’s sponsorship of the awareness month “a huge conflict of interest” – since encouraging women to get screened for breast cancer will invariably increase the number of breast cancer diagnoses and thus the market for their breast cancer drugs Arimidex, Faslodex, Nolvadex and Zoladex.
The more we screen, he explains, the more women we subject to “surgery, chemotherapy and radiation for cancers that never would have harmed them”. Dr. Welch cites a paper published last month in the New England Journal of Medicine that estimated for every life saved by a screening mammogram, five to 15 other women needlessly became diagnosed and treated.
Under the noble auspices of charity, argues Queen’s University professor Samantha King in her book, Pink Ribbons Inc: Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy, global corporations, politicians, and “regressive white middle class family values” are all getting a big shot in the arm from this pink ribbon juggernaut. She notes that, beyond being an all-too-frequent and still-too-lethal disease for many women, breast cancer is a corporate dream come true.
“Corporations secure free publicity and a means to expand their market share via enlogoed ‘awareness’ campaigns. The rank and file, conditioned by now to believe that there’s no problem shopping can’t solve, are invited to feel virtuous and altruistic whenever they buy a Yoplait yogurt or a pink KitchenAid mixer.”
Dr. King also suggests that, before you purchase yet another pink product this month, you should ask the following questions:
1. How much money actually goes to the cause? (If very little. it’s best to give directly to organizations whose work you support rather than filtering it through a large corporation).
2. Where will the money end up? (Information about this is usually hard to find and often vague; if you can’t tell, don’t buy the product).
3. What types of programs will benefit? (If we want to see real innovation in the breast cancer research agenda, we should target our generosity to those organizations that focus on the causes of the disease and how to prevent them).
Mary Elizabeth Williams adds:
“It’s certainly more pleasant to buy a pink bucket of KFC and congratulate oneself for ‘promoting awareness’ than it is to march for cirrhosis, hepatitis and gonorrhea, but what if we had even a measure of the same generous, unconditional support we give this month to women with breast cancer for those living with less morally unambiguous conditions?
“What if October wasn’t just pink? Imagine how much suffering we could eliminate.
“Imagine how much we could cure.”
© 2010 Carolyn Thomas – Heart Sisters www.myheartsisters.org
♥ Read The Smug Morality of Breast Cancer Monthby Mary Elizabeth Williams writing in Salon.
♥ Watch the trailer for the National Film Board of Canada’s documentary Pink Ribbons Inc. based on Dr. Samantha King’s book.
♥ Read the Los Angeles Times story, The Downside of Awareness Campaigns, and Barbara Ehrenreich’s article in Harper’s magazine called Welcome To Cancerland: A Mammogram Leads To A Cult of Pink Kitsch.