October 17, 2011

Yes, it’s October, and Everything is Pink

This weekend, the New York Times ran a lengthy article on “The Pinking of America,” framed as a discussion of pink-themed marketing campaigns related to breast cancer awareness.

In it, they describe the numerous pink products on sale, especially in October, which is Breast Cancer Awareness month, noting that these campaigns have “become a multibillion-dollar business, a marketing, merchandising and fund-raising opportunity that is almost unrivaled in scope.” NFL teams, tires, mascara, blenders, and many more products have gotten a pink makeover to raise money for screening and treatment research.

As we’ve written here before, and as Breast Cancer Action’s Think Before You Pink campaign works to remind us, there are many criticisms of these pink campaigns, including the relatively small amounts actually being contributed through each pink purchase; pinkwashing – the selling of potentially harmful or cancer-causing products through pink ribbon promotions; the focus on mammograms and treatment rather than prevention; and the possibility that promoting aggressive early screening may lead to harm from unneeded treatments.

The Times piece, however, gives relatively brief and shallow coverage to these criticisms, each one counterbalanced by news of new Komen initiatives and remarks like, “Until we make more progress on the treatment side, on the understanding of what’s causing breast cancer, what would people like us to do, stop talking about it?”

Of course not. But there’s a tremendous gap between asking people not to talk about breast cancer and questioning whether the existing marketing machine is really channeling its efforts in the best possible way. I was heartened, however, by the comments, which raise critical questions not explored in the article. A few examples:

Komen’s willingness to help the NFL avoid the consequences of it’s players’ behavior toward women should not be excused.

I am a breast cancer “survivor” (so far) and I too dislike the pink. Emphasis on “the cure” and no emphasis at all on the cause: pollutants in the air water, food — caused by the same corporations who donate to the pink campaign….Fact is: if you don’t have health insurance, you won’t be able to afford the cure. And many insurers no longer pay for some of the most effective (and expensive) cancer treatments.

Instead of asking grown women to lick the lids of yogurt containers and mail them in like some school fundraising effort, companies that want to donate money can just do so—explaining to consumers that X% of sales for October will go to disease research.

Unless you’re close to someone who is suffering or has been suffering from breast cancer, you don’t see the emotional trauma that is brought on by chemo, hair loss and mastectomies. It’s time that Komen makes the reality of breast cancer less taboo. It shouldn’t just be about cute pink teeshirts and umbrellas.

As a final note, this quote from Komen’s CEO just grossed me out (emphasis mine): “America is built on consumerism. To say we shouldn’t use it to solve the social ills that confront us doesn’t make sense to me.” Ugh.


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