PINK O - Bart Everson

Pinkwashing Breast Cancer

How the intent to bring awareness to breast cancer morphed into an exploitative marketing scheme by greedy corporations.

Well, we’ve survived another October being assaulted by pink. Everywhere I look, ribbons and stickers are making vague promises about “awareness” and “support.” All of this pink, yet I can’t remember the last time a breast cancer awareness campaign actually attempted to teach me anything about breast cancer. I have a lot of feelings about Pinktober and none of them are good. What started as an earnest effort to bring breast cancer out of the shadows has turned into a bubble gum-colored marketing scheme.

One of the most glaring examples of this approach to breast cancer awareness is the NFL. Throughout the month of October, football fans squint their eyes as players and coaches don ridiculous fuchsia accessories on the field. Fuchsia, as it turns out, is the one hue in the spectrum that clashes with the color scheme of absolutely every NFL team. I’d be willing to forgive this fashion faux pas if I thought the NFL’s heart was in the right place. As far as I can tell, it’s just a marketing scheme to get women to buy NFL products. I recently visited the website where I found a few videos about the importance of screening and early detection for breast cancer. That’s good. There was also a link to the American Cancer Society’s donation page. OK. The heinous fuchsia accessories used in NFL games are being auctioned off with “proceeds benefiting the American Cancer Society’s Community Health Advocates National Grants for Empowerment (CHANGE) program,” though the NFL does not specify what portion of the proceeds will be donated (100%? 10% 1%?) Lastly, I found what I’ll call the “Overpriced Pink Crap Shopping Page.” On this page, fans are encouraged to purchase over-priced pink crap (or as the NFL calls it, “awareness gear”) to “show support” for the cause. Upon closer inspection I found an inconsistency in the product descriptions for the overpriced pink crap. The descriptions of some products (for example: item #1449531, a pink throw blanket) clearly state that “a portion of proceeds support breast cancer research,” though the exact percent that will be donated is not given. On the other hand, other items featured in the Overpriced Pink Crap Shopping Page (for example: item #1358218, a New Orleans Saints Crucial Catch ladies’ t-shirt) make no mention at all of proceeds being donated. Perhaps the omission of a specific statement of the donation associated with these products was just a simple oversight by the NFL web design team. On the other hand, perhaps the NFL is using breast cancer awareness as a gimmick to sell more merchandise. Just in case, I won’t be spending any of my money at the Overpriced Pink Crap Shopping Page this year.

In recent years, a term has been coined to describe this phenomenon of using breast cancer as a marketing device: pink-washing. Just slap a pink ribbon on a product and watch well-meaning consumers scoop them up. That doesn’t increase breast cancer awareness; it increases profit margins. I see pink ribbons on damn near everything these days, from cosmetics to food to Astroglide. Yes, Astroglide. The other day when I was shopping for vitamins at a local drugstore, I came across packages of Astroglide that were adorned with pink ribbons and made a very general claim to donate a portion of the proceeds from its sale to “breast cancer awareness programs.” The website didn’t name the specific programs they are supporting, but it does at least have some links to information about free and low-cost mammograms.


And why is breast cancer the focus of so many companies’ efforts to appear concerned about women’s health? The number one cause of death in American women isn’t breast cancer; it’s heart disease. Where are the massive marketing campaigns about that? Is the fight against breast cancer easier to market than the fight against heart disease? I often hear breast cancer survivors described as “victims” who “don’t deserve” to be afflicted by such a condition. I rarely hear those terms used to describe a woman with heart disease. Heart disease is largely viewed as a “lifestyle disease.” Are women who have heart disease seen as deserving it as punishment for not maintaining healthy diet and exercise habits? Is heart disease harder to market because those who suffer from it are often depicted as obese? We all know that society does not hold obese women in high esteem. Maybe breast cancer is a popular cause because it gives everyone the excuse to talk about boobs (“Save the ta-tas!” “Save the boobies!”) without having to pay much attention to the women they are attached to. Is the objectification of women’s bodies so strongly rooted in our culture that we can’t even stop doing it when women’s lives are at stake? I don’t have the answers to any of these questions, but I encourage you to think about them.

Many of the pinkwashed products on the market claim to support breast cancer “awareness.” What does that mean, exactly? I have no idea. Are we as a society suffering from a lack of breast cancer awareness? I doubt it. I do recognize that this wasn’t always the way. Back when a woman named Susan G. Komen died of the disease in the early 1980s, breast cancer wasn’t something that anyone talked about. Ladies didn’t discuss it with their families and friends. Legislators certainly didn’t discuss it as a women’s health policy issue. So while I disagree with a lot of the politics and methods of the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation, I certainly appreciate what they’ve accomplished in getting the conversation started. Now that most Americans are aware of breast cancer, let’s talk about it on a deeper level. The fight against breast cancer is far from over. People all over the world (even men!) die from it every year. Our work is not done. But now instead of focusing efforts on this nebulous idea of “awareness,” let’s focus them on goals like prevention, treatment and cure.

Maybe breast cancer is a popular cause because it gives everyone the excuse to talk about boobs without having to pay much attention to the women they are attached to.

As a public health professional, I tend to be less focused on curing disease than I am in preventing it in the first place. Preventing a disease is almost always cheaper than curing it. And, given the choice, I imagine that most people would rather just not get breast cancer than have to endure whatever treatment will lead to a cure. There’s just one problem with this plan: breast cancer prevention is not well understood. Doctors are pretty sure that regular exercise, limited alcohol consumption, and maintaining a healthy weight can help prevent breast cancer. The evidence is far from overwhelming, though. The medical community also suspects breast cancer risk might be raised by eating an unhealthy diet, smoking, and exposure to environmental pollution. However, there is even less evidence to support these relationships. Genetics plays a role, but 85% of women who develop breast cancer have no family history of the disease. More research is needed on the causes of breast cancer before we can definitely say how to prevent it.

I know that many of us (maybe even all of us) know or have known people who are fighting or have fought a battle against breast cancer. With a personal connection to the disease, it’s understandable and commendable to want to do something about it. What I encourage you all to do is think before you act and research before you donate. Don’t discount the power of your small acts of kindness. You want to support a woman who has breast cancer? Cook dinner for her family. Give her a ride home from chemo. Take her kids off her hands for a few hours so she can rest. You want to support breast cancer research? Look closely at the budget of the organizations you donate to; what percent of your money actually goes to research? Consider enrolling in a clinical trial, especially if you are African American. African Americans are exceedingly underrepresented in clinical trials, for reasons I could fill another column with. We don’t need to be assaulted with pink ribbons and fuchsia football gear in order to redirect the fight against breast cancer and make a meaningful impact.

Editor’s note: 10/2/2014 – At the time of publishing, the information regarding items listed in the article sold by the NFL was accurate. Since then, the NFL has removed some items (such as this one) from their Pink/A Crucial Catch store and, for the remaining items, 100% of the proceeds benefit the American Cancer Society. Here is some recent insight into how the NFL may be scaling back their Pinktober campaign. Astroglide has removed their breast cancer awareness page completely.

What do you think?