Pink is also, not surprisingly, subtly interwoven throughout the National Breast Cancer Awareness Month’s marketing materials and website, the online accompaniment to what is actually a year-round international campaign sponsored by 19 medical associations, nonprofits, and government agencies. The goal of both the organization and the site is to serve as a comprehensive resource for patients, survivors, and the general public, increasing awareness about the disease and raising funds for research.
Early detection is one of the hallmarks of the campaign, and visitors will find plenty of data on the site dedicated to self-breast exams, the importance of scheduling regular mammograms (which NBCAM promotes as the most effective tool in fighting the disease), and info about what screenings are covered by insurance. For those already struggling with the disease, a nav bar offers support services, a breast cancer Q&A, and even recipes for foods that are most easily tolerated and may even alleviate some symptoms.
Perhaps the most recognizable symbol of the organization is the pink ribbon. Associated with the breast cancer campaign since the early 1990s when the Susan G. Komen Foundation handed out pink ribbons during its annual Race for the Cure in New York, The Breast Cancer Research Foundation has adopted the pink ribbon as its official symbol.
It’s become an effective branding tool—the ribbon is nearly always immediately identifiable with breast cancer and organizations dedicated to fighting it. The ribbon appears prominently on the NBCAM site; it can also be downloaded from the site for use in newsletters, ads, and other print materials to complement marketing materials that are spreading the word about NBCAM activities. A talking pink ribbon even advocates for annual mammograms in a public-service spot posted on the site.
The products store featured on the NBCAM site is provided by Bells International and showcases everything from decorative pink-ribbon bandannas and T-shirts to lapel pins, buttons, and magnets. The site asserts that part of each sale’s proceeds are used to fund breast cancer education.
Not All Is Rosy
Widespread brand recognition and popularity, however, are often accompanied by accountability concerns. Commercialization of the campaign has led to “pinklash,” which challenges both the methods and the message behind the National Breast Cancer Awareness Month organization. Some argue that more money is poured into “cause-marketing” initiatives than research to fight the disease; that some companies who splatter pink-ribbon icons on their products actually use manufacturing methods that could contribute to the prevalence of breast cancer; and that the breast cancer campaign and its accompanying pink hues have become almost too “cheery,” minimizing the seriousness of the disease and those who suffer from it.
Perhaps the most vocal critic of NBCAM has been Breast Cancer Action, a national grassroots education and advocacy organization that created Think Before You Pink, now in its seventh year. The BCA, which has deemed itself “the watchdog of the breast cancer movement,” launched this campaign to combat what it saw as an overwhelming number of pink-ribbon products on the market (because the pink ribbon isn’t trademarked by any one company and is in the public domain, anyone can use it). Think Before You Pink also takes on what it calls “pink washers,” companies that claim to be fighting against breast cancer but are actually manufacturing products that have been shown to be linked to the disease (certain cosmetics companies, automobile manufacturers, and even yogurts with rGBH are cited as prime offenders on the BCA site).
BCA has come up with a list of critical questions it feels every consumer should ask before contributing to these types of promotions, including: How much money from your purchase actually goes toward breast cancer, and is the amount clearly stated on the package (for example, if you buy an article of clothing for $15 and only 50 cents is sent to a breast cancer organization, is that a significant donation)? What’s the maximum amount that will be donated (will the company place a cap on donations)? How are the funds being raised (a product box may have a pink ribbon on it, but you may have to go to the company’s website to buy additional products for your money to make its way to a good cause)? To what breast cancer organization does the money go, and to what types of programs? And what is the company doing to assure its products aren’t contributing to the breast cancer epidemic?
The Cancer Prevention Coalition has also come down on NBCAM, claiming that there is too much focus on early detection and treatment, and not enough on environmental factors—an underlying message that the CPC feels blames the victim. The CPC believes that if these environmental and genetic factors can be controlled or mitigated, the number of people who get cancer could be significantly decreased.
Despite these criticisms, the NBCAM and its supporters are proud of the money that “pink marketing” has raised. Just last month, for instance, Susan G. Komen for the Cure announced it would be distributing US$ 100 million in grants to scientists worldwide this year. By continuing its consumer education and awareness, especially through its website, the organization that started out as a 31-day crusade hopes to maintain the blush on its information-dissemination goals all year long.