"Breast Cancer Is A Disease, Not A Marketing Opportunity"

It's Breast Cancer Awareness Month, which means our public spaces are bedecked with so many pink ribbons, it looks like a 4-year-old interior decorator named Emily got a contract to do the whole country. It's a little much.

And yet, despite all the good reasons to hate the pink ribbons — see Barbara Ehrenreich's 2001 essay "Welcome to Cancerland" for more on that and pretty much everything else in this post — doesn't it feel a bit grinchy to object strenuously to them? Raising awareness is good, right? And hey, when you buy that beribboned candy bar or make-up brush or spatula, you're donating money to a good cause, right?

Maybe, maybe not. As Aimee Picchi writes at AOL's Daily Finance, the breast cancer-specific packaging is more an indication of savvy marketing than corporate benevolence. In some cases, there's no guarantee at all that part of your purchase price will go to a charity; Procter and Gamble will only donate two cents of your pink Swiffer purchase if you have a specific coupon that appeared in newspapers a couple of weeks ago, for instance. In others, the fine print tells you there's a cap on donations — e.g., $15,000 for Herr's Whole Grain Pretzel Ribbons — so if you buy the product after the limit's been reached, your money goes exactly where it would go if you bought the normal package. And in still other cases, such as Hershey's Bliss chocolates, the donation is not only capped (at $300,000 there), but entirely separate from sales of the product, so there's no reason at all to buy the pink package unless you like your chocolate gendered.

Why co-opt the pink ribbon if you're not even raising money for breast cancer research? Because, like Axe body spray, fruity malt liquor and backhanded compliments, women go nuts for it. Picchi cites a recent Boston Globe article that says market research has found that "79 percent of consumers would likely switch to a brand that supports a cause, all other things being equal." And a recent study at The University of Michigan "found that not only can companies raise prices and make higher profits on the sale of products that benefit a cause, these companies' entire brand portfolios can experience a 'spillover' increase in sales and profits, which more than compensates for the money given to charity." Giving a little bit of money away — or at least appearing as if you might — actually makes big money. It's "a competitive business strategy," Hershey spokesperson Jody Cook told Picchi. "We know the pink ribbon resonates well with our customer, and our main target for the Bliss brand is women and mothers, so it's a perfect fit." (It also "fits in with [Hershey's] corporate values," but Cook doesn't specify whether she means charitable values or shareholder-pleasing ones. Could go either way.)

Still, one might argue that some good is being done, and no obvious harm, so why fuss? Blogger Jeanne Sather calls bullshit: "Breast cancer is a disease. Not a marketing opportunity." (At her blog, The Assertive Cancer Patient, you can see Sather sporting a T-shirt that reads "Fuck awareness. Find a cure." The "u" in "Fuck" is a pink ribbon.) Exploiting a devastating disease in order to reap greater profits — while pretending it's all about funding research, at least until you're directly questioned about the fine print — may be legal and may even be "good business," but man, is it ever icky. How many consumers realize their pink purchase is probably not doing a damned thing — or that any donation the company does make to charity is likely to be far exceeded by the extra dough they pocket by essentially tricking customers into believing every pink ribbon equals a donation? Says Sather, simply, "This is wrong."

But as much as I like to blame corporate greed for pretty much everything up to and including the fact that I'm a little sleepy right now, those of us buying the pink shit need to take some responsibility, too. Barbara Brenner, executive director of Breast Cancer Action, told Picchi, "People have come to believe that if they just do what they're told by corporate America, whether buying a product or doing a walk, they'll solve the breast cancer problem and not have to think about it." My instinct is to argue that the problem isn't entirely about the sheep factor, or the ostrich factor, but about not knowing what else to do. Sather suggests that "if consumers really want to help fight cancer, they should consider directly giving money to organizations such as Gilda's Club, Team Survivor or Breast Cancer Action," but that only works if a personal donation is in the budget; one of the reasons people do walks and buy pink-ribboned candy bars is that it's a way to contribute when one has limited finances. But then, Sather adds, you could also "offer to help a cancer patient personally, such as doing her grocery shopping." Oh. Right. That probably would be more helpful than hoping 2 cents of my Swiffer purchase will go toward a cure. And the fact that I wouldn't have thought of it unless one of my friends or family members was diagnosed with breast cancer goes to Brenner's point. The primary attraction of cause-associated products is that you can congratulate yourself for doing something good without actually doing anything.

The least we can do as consumers, then, is follow the advice of Breast Cancer Action: "Think Before You Pink." On a list of "critical questions to ask yourself before you buy pink," the website makes not only all of the points Picchi does, but an even more disturbing one: Some of the companies donating money to breast cancer research are also doing things that might be causing it. "BMW, for example, gives $1 to Susan G. Komen for the Cure each time you test-drive one of their cars, even though pollutants found in car exhaust are linked to breast cancer. Many cosmetics companies whose products contain chemicals linked to breast cancer also sell their items for the cause." And pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly might be the worst "pinkwasher" of all, having recently begun selling rGBH (bovine growth hormone) which has been banned in Canada, Australia, Japan and the EU, in part because it's linked to cancer. Lilly also happens to do a couple billion dollars a year in cancer drug sales. It seems horribly cynical to explicitly connect those two things and ask the obvious question — would the folks at Lilly actually be happy if cancer rates went down? — but history has shown us it ain't necessarily tinfoil hat territory.

At best, we can say that the links between cancer and some of the chemicals in question aren't conclusively proven — and I'm all for keeping in mind that correlation is not causation — but it's certainly worth taking a moment to consider whether we're indirectly supporting cancer itself while attempting to support a worthy cause with our purchases. And then take a moment to read the fine print on a beribboned package and find out where, if anywhere other than the corporation's coffers, our money is going. And then maybe see if one of our neighbors needs someone to make a run to the grocery store.

Pink ribbon overkill: Are companies exploiting breast cancer campaigns? [Daily Finance]
Sick of pink [Boston Globe]
Welcome to Cancerland [Barbara Ehrenreich]
Think Before You Pink [Breast Cancer Action]