Now that the flurry of pink ribbons has died down, October being Breast Cancer Awareness Month, let's take a deep breath and think critically about the Pink Ribbon Campaign that has captured the hearts of generous Americans. Exactly what is it about, and what impact does it have?
One of the things it's about is called "cause marketing," some of which is effective, some of which is exploitive, and all of which makes companies look good. Eli Lilly, for example, jumped on the "think pink" bandwagon but it is the sole manufacturer of rBGH, the artificial growth hormone linked to breast cancer. And the company manufacturers breast cancer drugs. That's why they're considered by many to be part of the cancer establishment -- the community of environmentally polluting businesses, pharmaceutical companies, researchers who benefit from grants, and others who stand to profit from cancer funds and who don't want prevention to be the name of the game.
On the other hand, in response to a counter-marketing "Yoplait: Put a Lid On It" campaign by Breast Cancer Action (BCA), a respected California-based education and advocacy group, General Mills took rBGH out of Yoplait yogurt, for which they deserve credit.
Breast Cancer Action was founded in 1990 by women in San Francisco who were frustrated by lack of knowledge about their disease. Today the organization has 17,000 members nationally. BCA has helped to transform breast cancer from a private medical crisis to a public health emergency, with good reason: More than two million women are living with breast cancer in the U.S. alone. The lifetime risk of getting the disease has risen dramatically. In 1980 the chance of getting breast cancer was estimated at one in fourteen women; today it is one in eight. Every two minutes another woman hears the dreaded news that she has the second leading cause of cancer death among women as a whole (after lung cancer).
"Think Before You Pink," a project of BCA launched in 2002, calls for more transparency and accountability by companies that take part in breast cancer fundraising. It also encourages consumers to ask critical questions about pink ribbon promotions. Here are some of the key questions they suggest you ask before buying pink:
How much money from your purchase is actually going to breast cancer? If the package states how much, is it enough? Fox Home Entertainment sold "DVDs for the Cure" for $14.95 but donated only 50 cents to Susan G. Komen for the Cure.
What is the maximum amount that will be donated? Give Hope Jeans which sold for $88 donated 'net proceeds' to Living Beyond Breast Cancer. But they capped their contributions at $200,000; once that goal was reached, the stopped contributing no matter how many jeans they sold.
How are funds being raised? Is a contribution automatically linked to your purchase or do you have to do something to ensure that funds are made available to an organization? Lean Cuisine, for instance, required consumers to go online and buy a pink Lean Cuisine lunch bag in order for $5 to be donated. This ploy not only represents a consumer hoop, it helps to advertise Lean Cuisine if you carry your lunch to work.
Where does the money go? What types of programs are being supported? One company that sells pink tennis balls noted on its package that a whopping 15 cents would go to "a Breast Cancer Research Organization." But which one? Is the money going to duplicate existing studies or will it be used to support innovative research into the causes of cancer?
What is the company doing to ensure that their own products don't contribute to the breast cancer epidemic? Breast Cancer Action has dubbed companies that contribute to the increased risk of breast cancer "pinkwashers." BMW, for example, gives $1 to Susan G. Komen for the Cure each time one of their cars is test-driven, but pollutants from car exhaust are linked to breast cancer. Similarly, many cosmetic companies whose products contain harmful chemicals are selling their items for the cause.
"Every year, thousands of companies boost their sales and their image [in October] by tacking pink ribbons to products ranging from Vespas to toilet paper," says BCA executive director Barbara Brenner. "Pink ribbon cause marketing is a racket that far too often exploits breast cancer."
So next time, "think before you pink." Along with thousands of others, and a few socially responsible businesses, you could be helping to save a woman's life.