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Breast Cancer's Pink Ribbon Movement: Inspiration or Manipulation?

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Pinkwashing: some corporations abuse the pink ribbon campaign for breast cancer

Susan G. Koman for the Cure, an organization dedicated to the fight against breast cancer, sponsors a series of annual fundraising events called the Race for the Cure. At the 1991 race in New York City, sponsors decided to distribute pink ribbons to runners as a representation of concern for and solidarity with breast cancer victims and survivors. This idea was inspired by the Red ribbon campaign that had been developed to help raise awareness about AIDS. From this modest beginning the symbolism of the pink ribbon took off, to the point that these ribbons and the color pink in general have now become associated everywhere with the fight against breast cancer.

October has been officially designated Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Each year, the coming of October means the proliferation of the color pink wherever you look. Pictures of pink ribbons can be found on a wide variety of products, and pink-themed advertising campaigns are used by literally hundreds of businesses. Pink shirts, hats and sweatshirts are sold in many places, and of course the original pink ribbons themselves are handed out at Komen races throughout the world. All of these product tie-ins and marketing promotional campaigns are designed to raise awareness about breast cancer, and virtually every company involved has pledged to dedicate a percentage of any proceeds raised to breast cancer research and treatment programs.

In the two decades since the pink ribbon was first distributed as a symbol of solidarity with breast cancer victims, the pink-breast cancer connection has become something of a public health juggernaut. Never before has a marketing campaign tied to a disease been so successful or gained so much attention from consumers, the media, business leaders and politicians, and the massive unified front that has been put up against breast cancer is quite impressive indeed.

The darker side of pink
However, numerous questions have been raised about the pink ribbon campaign and the way it has been used as a merchandising tool by large corporate interests that have not necessarily demonstrated a commitment to protecting public health in the past. The term pinkwashing has been created to describe the sometimes disingenuous and cynical ways that breast cancer awareness has been used as a cover by these types of corporations.

Some of the large businesses that have seemingly been out front in the fight against breast cancer are actually notorious polluters who have previously opposed stronger environmental legislation, as well as attempts by public health officials to more deeply investigate the role of environmental contamination in the onset of cancers of all types.

Other pinkwashers are companies who make a great show of their concern over breast cancer, but who actually donate less to research and treatment than they spend on developing marketing promotions designed to exploit public concern over the issue to help them sell products. The pinkwashing charge has also been thrown out against cosmetic companies that publicly show the pink, while at the same time putting chemicals in their products that are suspected of being carcinogenic. In addition to the pinkwashers, it has also been noted that some of the biggest flashers of pink paraphernalia are drug companies that sell pharmaceuticals used in cancer treatments and manufacturing companies that make equipment used in mammography.

Not surprisingly, organizations that are the recipients of large quantities of corporate dollars like pink ribbon originators Susan G. Komen for the Cure defend their wealthiest benefactors, claiming that they would never work with any business who simply wanted good publicity. And as long as money and awareness are being raised, other defenders ask, does it really matter what the deeper motives of corporate sponsors are?

Pink Ribbon, Incorporated
Yes, says Samantha King, a professor of health studies from Queens University in Ontario, who in 2006 published a scathing critique of the pink ribbon movement called Pink Ribbon, Inc.: Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy. Professor King points out that ten times as many women die each year from heart disease as die from breast cancer; also, more women get skin cancer than breast cancer, and lung cancer is the number one killer among cancers that strike women. This implies that perhaps there has been too much attention focused on breast cancer alone by those who claim to be concerned with the overall state of women’s health.

Professor King also believes the pink ribbon campaign has created a false sense of security with respect to breast cancer itself. While there has been some reduction in the death rate in recent years, that does not change the fact that an individual woman’s lifetime chances of having breast cancer has increased from about 1 in 20 in 1960 to 1 in 7 today. Like many, Professor King is struck by the focus of the anti-breast cancer campaign on screening and developing new drug treatments, as opposed to prevention and the search for the underlying reasons why the rate of breast cancer has gone up so much in modern times. Many suspect that environmental chemical usage is the main culprit in the explosion of cancer rates, and that perhaps this is not a part of the story that the corporate world funding current research efforts wants to be told in its entirety.

Pink ribbons: the good and the bad
While it may be true that a disproportionate amount of attention has been paid to breast cancer in comparison to other diseases, more than anything this shows that anti-breast cancer activists have done their job well. The pink ribbon campaign has proven to be an inspired use of symbolism, and those trying to raise awareness about other diseases could learn much from this public health success.

However, it is hard not to be concerned about an approach to fighting disease that puts so much emphasis on shopping. Being a good consumer and buying pink every October cannot be confused with really making an effort to do something about a significant social problem. The incredible increase in the rate of breast cancer among American women over the past 50 years is deeply disturbing, and a lot of probing questions need to be asked about our consumer culture and lifestyle, and about the role that environmental contamination traceable to an over reliance on chemicals may be playing in the epidemic of breast cancer, and of all cancers. As Samantha King illustrates in her very important book on the operations of the “breast cancer industry” as a whole, it is not at all clear that this is a part of the story corporate breast cancer philanthropists want to be told.

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