In recent years, October has become a month not only saturated with orange and black, but with pink as well.
The pink ribbon, universally recognized as the symbol of breast cancer awareness, can be found throughout the month of October on products ranging from makeup to clothing to Kentucky Fried Chicken.
National Breast Cancer Awareness Month (NBCAM) was founded in 1985 by the American Cancer Society and Imperial Chemical Industries. In the past decade, the utilization of NBCAM as a marketing tactic has gotten out of hand.
Although the popularization of pink products has been widely successful in mobilizing a vast range of companies to raise awareness of breast cancer, commonly used methods of increasing public consciousness are often flawed.
“Pinkwashing,” a blending of the words “pink” and “whitewashing,” is the sale of products that simultaneously claim to “support” breast cancer awareness, and contain substances that have been linked to cancer. Breast Cancer Action’s Think Before You Pink campaign coined the term in response to widespread exploitation of breast cancer as a marketing tactic.
The nation’s leading breast cancer foundations have recently come under scrutiny in the media, as the public begins to examine the real meaning of breast cancer awareness.
Komen, the most ubiquitous breast cancer foundation in the United States, is responsible for the distribution of most pink products. These products are sold either directly by Komen, or by companies that donate a portion of their profits to Komen. It is not necessarily beneficial, however, that the foundation has such a tight grip on the resources available for breast cancer research and treatment.
In 2012, Komen gave in to pressure from anti-abortion activists to cease their funding of Planned Parenthood’s breast cancer screening services. Although the company eventually reversed the decision as a result of significant backlash from the public, it had already exposed its true priorities.
Komen’s method of funding breast cancer research and treatment is fundamentally inefficient, and ensures that only a small percentage of proceeds ever benefits cancer patients. The foundation spends approximately the same percentage of funds on “raising awareness” as it spends on research, screening services and treatment combined. In other words, Komen raises money by selling products, and spends it on making people “aware,” which in turn motivates consumers to go buy more pink products.
A significant portion of pink products, including those sold through Komen, are carcinogenic. Through the sale of such products, retailers are directly increasing the risk of cancer in their customers, while claiming to do exactly the opposite.
Many companies donate an extremely low percentage of their profits to breast cancer organizations, reaping the rewards of associating themselves with a charity without significantly benefiting cancer patients. Others do not tie their donation to the sales of a particular pinkwashed product at all. Rather, they use the product to increase their own profit, but make a pre-set donation to a breast cancer foundation.
Most sellers do not provide information up front about their actual donation of funds to breast cancer charities. It is often unclear to buyers how the proceeds will be used to help women with breast cancer, and the money is often used to promote the sales of more pink ribbon-branded products.
Merging health concerns with marketing is always a risky endeavor, and often a counterproductive one. The most profitable option for a company rarely coincides with the most beneficial course of action for cancer patients. It is often difficult, from a consumer’s perspective, to determine where the supplier’s priorities lie.
Pinkwashing threatens to make breast cancer into a trivial, seemingly harmless marketing scheme. The overemphasis of the color pink, irrelevant to the cause itself, spreads empty awareness instead of promoting action that will help cancer patients. Some research has suggested that the association of breast cancer with bubblegum pink merchandise has decreased the seriousness with which women take the disease.
Marketing is fundamentally intertwined with competition. While the prevalence of the spread of breast cancer awareness is undeniably advantageous, it also means that the disease often overshadows other equally threatening health issues. In fact, the leading cause of death in women is heart disease, which receives comparably minimal attention.
Although it is, of course, important that women are educated as thoroughly as possible about breast cancer causes, risk factors and symptoms, it is equally important that they have the same level of understanding when it comes to other health threats that can be just as grave.
Women with breast cancer are portrayed in the media as attractive and cheerful–in other words, palatable for readers and viewers. The world rarely sees the mental and physical scars that the disease inflicts on its victims. By continually obscuring the unfortunate realities of breast cancer through the promotion of a single story of victorious survivorship, the media discredits experiences that do not follow the prescribed script of stories in movies and magazines.
Most attempts to inform the public of the realities of breast cancer ignore the systemic issues at the heart of the disease. Instead, they tend to emphasize individual solutions, which is not a sufficient means to tackle the root causes of breast cancer. While the public has come a long way in the destigmatization and introduction of breast cancer into mainstream conversation, there is still a long way to go in terms of public knowledge.
It is difficult to draw a line between exploitation and beneficial utilization. Buyers, however, must consider their choices before blindly buying pinkwashed products. As the world begins to question the legitimacy of companies that claim to raise awareness of breast cancer and general knowledge about the disease grows, consumers will have access to a wider variety of products that truly aid breast cancer patients