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The Pink Ribbon Juggernaut

Book explores how corporate marketers seized control of breast cancer activism

What happens when corporate marketers commandeer a grassroots health movement and turn it into a mini-industry? Samantha King provides a revealing look in her book, Pink Ribbons, Inc.: Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy (University of Minnesota). King, a professor at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, describes how corporate marketers have transformed a once-stigmatized disease into a branded cause that subtly serves their commercial self-interests.

Photo by merfam via Flickr, licensed under a CC BY license.

At one time, activists focused on the environmental causes of breast cancer and the importance of prevention. But as corporate marketers came to recognize that breast cancer awareness offers a great way to position one’s company as a champion of women, the “social meaning” of the disease changed. The “pink ribbon” branding of breast cancer has made the disease an upbeat, emotional celebration of “survivors,” women’s fitness, civic voluntarism – and selling.

Major charities like the Susan Komen Foundation and the National Alliance of Breast Cancer Organizations have entered into “win-win” partnerships with large corporations to use product marketing as a vehicle for promoting awareness of breast cancer detection and treatment. In short order, breast cancer testing and treatment became a wildly successful theme for selling kitchen appliances, vacuum cleaners, cosmetics, jewelry, clothing and countless other products.

Pink ribbons became a form of socially responsible branding for Avon lipstick, Yoplait yogurt and Kellogg cereals. KitchenAid developed a pink “Cook for the Cure” mixer. BMW gave a dollar to the cause for every mile of test driving that a prospective customer did with a BMW vehicle. Estée Lauder makeup counters distributed 1.5 million pink ribbons.

Through their affiliation with this cause, corporate marketers have shrewdly positioned themselves as women-friendly, socially engaged civic boosters. What’s so problematic about that? Nothing, so far as it goes. But as King points out, the gender-oriented marketing of the “pink” campaigns has helped “reproduce associations between women and shopping, and a more general tendency to deploy consumption as a major avenue of political participation.” The advertisers make it seem that buying a pink-ribboned product is the most virtuous achievement one might do to fight breast cancer.

As the bandwagon got rolling, other businesses discovered how breast cancer awareness could help them rehabilitate their beleaguered images. For example, after a series of prominent NFL players were involved in serious crimes such as rape, domestic violence and DUI, the NFL launched a “Real Men Wear Pink” campaign. This PR effort enabled the NFL to showcase its players as community-minded volunteers who care about women and children.

It is sobering to reflect on the history of how corporate marketers and their affiliated foundations adopted breast cancer, and dramatically remade it, as a way to serve their commercial needs. King writes:

Until the 1980s, corporate philanthropy was a relatively random, eclectic, and unscientific activity based largely on the individual preferences of high-ranking executives. Since then, it has been transformed into a highly calculated, quantified and planned approach, often called “strategic philanthropy” or “charitable investing.” Of all the tools that have emerged during this time, cause-related marketing—when a company allies itself with a specific cause, and contributes money, time or expertise in return for the right to make publicity or commercial value—is among the most popular and publicly visible. The effect of this transformation has been to place philanthropy at the center of business activity and to transform it into a revenue-producing mechanism.

Pink-ribbon marketing reaps huge amounts of customer goodwill and visibility by “breaking through the clutter” of conventional advertising. “Race for the Cure” foot races allow companies to celebrate cancer survivors and their friends and family with torrents of feel-good, Oprah-like publicity – a regimented display of optimism that King calls a “tyranny of cheerfulness.”

With such a relentless focus on the catharsis of “surviving,” however, there is little room to discuss how poverty, unequal access to health care and racial inequalities contribute to the prevalence of breast cancer. The priorities of marketing and sales leave little room for anger, dissent and substantive discussion.

King points out, for example, that the pink-ribbon crowd is not agitating for a larger federal budget for breast cancer prevention. It does not pressure corporations to identify and stop chemical causes of breast cancer. (Breast Cancer Action, the San Francisco-based activist group, accuses “pink” sponsors like Avon, Revlon, and Estée Lauder of using known or suspected cancer-causing chemicals, such as parabens and phthalates in their products.)

When marketers set the priorities for public awareness, there is little interest in racial or economic injustice. King notes that the pink campaigns do not call attention to the unequal access to cancer treatment – or health care more generally – suffered by poor people and people of color. Such messages would presumably detract from the goal of selling product to a more affluent consumer demographic.

The dirty secret is that the actual amounts of charitable money raised from pink-ribbon marketing campaigns are quite modest relative to the publicity that corporate marketers receive. Some corporate sponsors spend more money on breast cancer-themed advertisements than they donate to research or treatment. The result, says King, is that the pink-ribbon campaigns “exploit the public’s goodwill by making big promises that are not being fulfilled.”

There remain a few advocacy groups, such as Breast Cancer Action, that continue to focus on prevention and social equity, rather than on treatment alone. BCA has re-named the annual marketing campaigns in October “Breast Cancer Industry Month” as a way to emphasize the costs of treatment. It has also launched a counter-campaign, “Think Before You Pink,” to urge women to “do something besides shop.” BCA urges consumers to buy only from companies that provide specific, explicit information about how their donations will be spent. They also urge that donations be given to organizations that address the causes of breast cancer, and prevention.

The danger of the whole “win-win” rhetoric used by the pink-ribbon marketers, is coming to believe that there are no losers. In fact, as Samantha King points out in this brave book, the corporate takeover of breast cancer activism has marginalized all sorts of important issues about breast cancer that deserve our full attention.