Has the pink ribbon outlived its welcome for breast cancer?

Staples Pink Ribbon Stapler

Nan Feyler, chief of staff for the Philadelphia Department of Public Healthis a member of an expert panel intended to expand the breadth of The Public’s Health.

By Nan Feyler

Since 1985, October has been designated a month to promote breast cancer awareness, share information on the disease, and provide greater access to related services. For some, it is a time to reflect on family members and friends who have died from  breast cancer; an opportunity to raise money for breast cancer research and treatment, or a chance to join in solidarity in the fight against breast cancer. For others it is a month of endless pink – pink water in public fountains, buildings awash in soft pink lighting, pink-adorned cheerleaders with pink pom poms and lots of merchandise emblazoned with a pink ribbon – that they see as evidence of the commercialization of a disease that science is still struggling to understand, and is far from preventing.

All agree about the seriousness of breast cancer, but opinions differ about the approach of Breast Cancer Awareness Month  – and about the pink ribbon, its official symbol since 1992:

  • Some believe that the sea of pink ribbons every October – and increasingly year round  – sugarcoats the harsh reality of breast cancer; an estimated 226,870 women in the U.S. will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year, and 39,510 women will die of it.
  • The upbeat spin focusing on hope and survival encourages some but offends others, who say it makes invisible the thousands of women who have the most serious and deadly types of breast cancer: 155,000 women in the United States are living with Stage IV breast cancer, which cannot be cured, necessitating life-long, often-grueling treatment.
  • Many survivors say they resent associating cancer with shopping for products garnished in pink.

Erika Lads, a breast cancer survivor, wrote recently in a Huffington Post column: “Pink, the supposed color of femininity, does not represent breast cancer to me. In fact, after losing my hair in six rounds of chemo, going through menopause at 28, being sick as a dog and having both of my breasts removed, I pretty much feel less feminine than ever. Breast cancer, like any other cancer, is a gnarly and wicked disease. Its treatments are arduous and painful, long and intense. They are invasive and, at times, humiliating.”

Others see it differently. Survivors of breast cancer in Canada put together a 2013 Pink Ribbons Pin-Ups Calendar with proceeds going to the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation.  The project hopes to raise awareness and empower survivors. For 25-year-old Ashley Hart, one of the pin-up girls, every display of support is empowering: “It's good for a survivor to feel like you belong to part of a club and that you're not alone and to see all this support.”

What about the merchandise emblazed with a pink ribbon? The range of products that have been “pinked,” to use the marketing term, is astounding, from cars, to candy, staplers, clothes, wine, kitchen blenders, a bucket of chicken and the entire National Football League.

They are all examples of “cause marketing,” a strategy that links purchases of a company’s products with donations to charity. A recent study found that cause marketing allows companies to increase their profits by increasing the price and sales of not only the cause-related products but also unrelated products because of the good feeling that consumers have for the company.

Breast Cancer Action has been advocating against this kind of fundraising for many years. In response to the growing concern about the number of pink ribbon products on the market, the group launched the Think Before You Pink campaign in 2002.  In particular, it challenges “pink washing,” in which “a company or organization that claims to care about breast cancer by promoting a pink ribbon product, at the same time produces, manufactures and/or sells products that are linked to the disease.” The campaign calls for more transparency and accountability by companies that take part in breast cancer fundraising, and encourages consumers to ask critical questions about pink ribbon promotions: How much money, if any goes to support breast cancer programs? What organizations get the funds raised? Is there a “cap” on the amount that the company will donate, and how does the shopping public know that the cap has been met? And this important one: Does the purchase put anyone at risk for exposure to toxins linked to breast cancer?

No laws have been passed to regulate cause marketing. No one has copyrighted the pink ribbon. Nor is there any legal requirement that a company donate any part of pink-ribboned product sales to charity. Earlier this month, the New York State attorney general issued best practices to promote transparency in charitable “cause marketing” campaign. The nation's two largest breast cancer charities, Susan G. Komen for the Cure and Breast Cancer Research Foundation have agreed to adopt the best practices.

So, have the ubiquitous pink ribbons outlived their usefulness? Do they now do more to increase sales than awareness? Or is the abundance of pink ribbons and worldwide coverage of Breast Cancer Awareness Month worthwhile – raising millions of dollars annually for breast cancer treatment and research that would not be available otherwise? Do the pink festooned parties provide good will and solidarity, or do they trivialize the harsh reality of living with breast cancer?

Regardless of your view, it seems fairly certain that pink ribbons are here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future. Cone Communications, a PR firm that is recognized as one of the pioneers of cause marketing, recently issued its 2012 Cone Communications Breast Cancer Trend Tracker.  It concluded that that while consumers are becoming “desensitized and increasingly skeptical . . . [f]or now, supporting the breast cancer cause remains a viable cause marketing strategy for corporations – the ‘pink’ halo effect is enough to prompt consumer purchase and participation.”

Let the buyer beware.

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