my turn


Singing The Blues For Pink

For a color whose name doesn’t even get top billing on the visible spectrum of light, pink has certainly developed potent staying power. From the Pink Panther to pink Cadillacs, and everything in between, this dainty mixture of red and white has also come to symbolize a less benign issue: the hundreds-of-millions-of-dollars-a-year-fight against breast cancer – the third deadliest cancer in America today and No. 2 killer of women.

Are you surprised I didn’t say it was the No. 1 killer of women and the second deadliest cancer in the United States? You can thank the power of marketing for shifting those perceptions.

Not only has breast cancer taken more than 240,000 lives since 2005, according to, it has also commandeered an entire month through powerful -- some would even say extreme, marketing influence. For the past 25 years, October’s ghosts and goblins have had to share the stage with the specter of breast cancer and its increasingly corporate-like kissing cousins – Breast Cancer Awareness Month and the inexorably linked Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation.



While no one can deny the impressive global awareness and funding these organizations have brought to the breast cancer cause – Susan G. Komen alone raised about $420 million in 2010 – am I the only one who thinks that all the merchandising: the pink ribbons, the pink-clad NFL teams, the Bank of America pink checking accounts, the pink armbands, pink lunchboxes, pink Kitchen Aid food processors  and whatever else has been Pink'd for October is diluting both the issue at hand and, in reality, siphoning more money toward profits than for research for an actual cure, and skewing public attention away from other serious cancers -- or other causes, period?

When was the last time you paid attention to cervical cancer, or colorectal cancer? Why don’t any NLF teams wear ribbons to support Male Breast Cancer – something that kills, on average, 450 men per year?

Pinkwashing: Where Does All the Money Go?

In 2002, Breast Cancer Action launched a side project called “Think Before You Pink,” whose goal was to raise awareness over the types of companies that chose to go pink, and “encourages consumers to ask critical questions about pink-ribbon promotions.” Doing battle with so-called “pinkwashing,” their motto is “raise a stink.” Here, too, donations go to cancer research.  The organization asks consumers to do some research before a pink product is purchased, for example:

  • How much money from your purchase actually goes toward breast cancer? Does it say so plainly on the box or packaging?
  • Does the company you’re purchasing from have a cap on the amount it sends in donations regardless of the number of pink-related sales?
  • Are funds being raised through direct purchase, or is a clever marketing scheme disguising the fact that you need to purchase additional merchandise from the company in order to make a donation?
  • How, specifically, is your money being spent?

I was reminded of the need to research when I received an email from Etsy (a site for artisanal wares), promoting all things pink but without any visible endorsements. Showcased vendors were promoting their wares with descriptions such as, “This apron knot dress is a great way to show support for all those around us touched by Breast Cancer and a fashionable and fun way to show your support for the fight for a cure.”  

I don’t know about you but I don’t that think fun and breast cancer belong in the same sentence, and it’s precisely this sort of overreach that at first confuses consumers (who exactly am I giving to?), then moves onto cause fatigue (not another pink promotion!!), and finally cause alienation (what a sell-out; I want nothing to do with that brand).

Have Sponsorship Dollars, Will Go Pink

Susan G’s overreach, too, seems to have gotten the organization into several snafus, the most notable when it partnered with Kentucky Fried Chicken to sell pink buckets of chicken to franchise operators, where 50 cents of every purchase went to the “For the Cure” campaign. Seriously, KFC?

Needless to say, the public and media backlash was acute, and the partnership short-lived. Is a pinkwashed KFC really going to unclog all those red blood vessels? Fried chicken is a well-known contributor to obesity, critics said, and obesity is also linked to cancer. How can a campaign be genuine if, on one hand, money goes to a worthy cause and, on the other hand, unnecessarily shines the spotlight on a fast food chain driving its sales and profits?

The truth is, it can’t.

Then there was the perfume brouhaha where independent testing of the chemicals in Susan G.'s Promise Me perfume revealed that some of them might be linked to cancer. For its part, the foundation released a statement saying that the levels of questionable ingredients fell “well within the guidelines of the International Fragrance Association,” but that out of an abundance of caution, the perfume’s formula was being tweaked.

Of course, the plot thickens when you consider the driver behind this story was cancer charity rival Breast Cancer Action. Is it possible their constant nitpicking is also part of their own marketing campaign called "my charity is better than/more deserving than yours?"

For consumers, it becomes very tiresome and, if that example raises questions of agenda bias on Breast Cancer Action’s part, this one won’t. Earlier this year, Stephen Colbert took Susan G. Komen to the court of public opinion when he teased the group’s million-dollar-plus effort to squash nonprofits that allegedly appropriated the “For the Cure” slogan. Who can blame these smaller nonprofits wanting to cash in on what's become a multimillion-dollar marketing machine.

To Komen’s credit, the organization makes no bones about its size, its influence or the way it does business.

“It’s a democratization of a disease,” said Komen CEO Nancy G. Brinker, in a recent New York Times article about the pinking of professional football. “It’s drilling down into the deepest pockets of America. …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.”

Raising awareness is all well and good, and Americans have huge hearts and pocketbooks when it comes to giving, but why must that awareness come with a pair of New Balance sneakers or a Kitchen Aid blender?

The truth is that it shouldn’t.  Since when did we start needing to get something in order to give?   

Let’s Reconsider Our Disease Consumerism

Pink’s 2011 October reign is almost complete. Soon we’ll be on to November, which is officially recognized as Lung Cancer Awareness Month. You remember lung cancer, don’t you, the No. 1 American cancer killer that took nearly a million lives in fours years? It’s got a color and a ribbon, too, though it shares its pearl-colored badge of honor with multiple sclerosis. Only its marketing budget can't compete with pink.

As we close out the final months of 2011, why don't we leave the color spectrum and our "disease consumerism" aside? Perhaps my singing the blues over pink may convince others to think about the effect that one cause's marketing efforts have had on so many others.

From breast to colorectal to pancreatic and prostate to ovarian, esophageal and all the insidious rest -- cancer kills indiscriminately. Choose whichever form of runaway cell growth you want and re-focus on the color of money instead: donate all that you can directly to treatment and screening sources of these other unadvertised cancers – having done your research first, of course.

Trust me. That blender – pink or otherwise – can wait. Because all cancers and life-threatening diseases are equal-opportunity killers, even if the marketing budgets of the nonprofits that support them aren't.





1 comment about "Singing The Blues For Pink".
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  1. David Hessekiel from Cause Marketing Forum, Inc., October 25, 2011 at 9:02 a.m.

    Clearly Vanessa Horwell is a thoughtful person, a PR professional and an excellent writer. I'm sorry that she dedicated so much of her talent to writing yet another "there's too much pink" column.

    As a leader of The Think Tank, an agency that advises nonprofits on building successful corporate partnerships, I wish she had used this space to provide one of two types of insight:

    1) Advice to other nonprofits on how they can create more effective corporate relationships that will stand out against the pink background

    2) Meaningful strategic advice to breast cancer charities on what she thinks they should do in place of working with companies on pink-tinged campaigns that raise significant amounts of money via for research, patient care and awareness.

    I'm the last to say that "anything goes" when it comes to cause marketing. I'm all for calling out companies and nonprofits that field inauthentic or deceptive campaigns related to any cause.

    But bashing pink breast cancer campaigns en masse is unfair and unwise. There are many terrific programs out there that follow the rules, raise huge amounts of money, awareness and other resources for worthwhile nonprofits and connect with consumers.

    As marketing professionals, lets channel our efforts into continuing to diversify and expand the range of companies and causes working together to do well by doing good.

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