The Dangers Of Pinkvertising

A new study suggests that pink breast cancer awareness ads may not work the way they're supposed to — and meanwhile, some activists are finding other reasons to quit thinking pink.

According to the Wall Street Journal, a study has found that women who look at pink-heavy breast cancer awareness advertisements have a lower estimate of their own risk of the disease than those who view more gender-neutral ads. A possible reason: "when a disease poses such a risk to someone's identity — in this case, being a woman — the defense mechanism can kick in. So it's more likely to be triggered when the ad emphasizes the connection with womanhood." That is, women who see highly female-centric breast cancer awareness messages may just shut down, becoming actually less aware of their own risk.

Of course, making women feel cancer-prone isn't the only purpose of breast cancer ads. They also aim to encourage screening — and while a feeling of high risk may be one motivator for getting a mammogram, it's not the only one. And, of course, organizations that take out the ads hope to raise donations. Unfortunately, pinking out the page may be detrimental to both these goals — gender-centric ads resulted in fewer donations in one experiment, and in reduced memory in another. So making cancer ads excessively ladylike may keep them from getting their message across.

On Forbes, Amy Lubilow and Mia Davis raise another concern about breast cancer advertising: that it's disingenuous. They argue that many companies that engage in pink-ribbon campaigns actually make products that may cause breast cancer. An example: "Avon is one of the most recognizable corporate entities participating in the breast cancer awareness industry and according to the Massachusetts Breast Cancer Coalition (MBCC), more than 250 of Avon's products listed in a database assessing the health risks of cosmetic products are listed in the "highest concern" category due to the presence of hormone disruptors, neurotoxins and possible carcinogens." Of course, "highest concern" is different from "proven cause of breast cancer," and until we know more, it's tough to blame individual companies for the disease.

However, that may be just the problem. In focusing on screening or treatment, as many pink-ribbon-style campaigns do, we take the emphasis off possible environmental causes of cancer. This is good for a lot of big companies, including those who make those "highest concern" products — every ad that pushes mammograms or a search for a cure turns the focus away from research into what makes cancer grow in the first place. The system works for drug companies too — drug company Novartis is betting on breast cancer drug Afinitor to help it stay in the black over the next couple of years. None of this means screening and treatment aren't important. But ads that focus on these to the exclusion of all else risk blinding us to the bigger picture.

Pinkwashing: Corporate Sponsored Cancer [Forbes Girl Friday Blog]
Should Breast Cancer Ads Play Up the Pink? [WSJ]
Novartis Drug Seeks Wider Use [WSJ]

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