October is the month of the Pink Ribbon. Store shelves are overloaded with pink items ranging from everything to small quartz earrings all the way to large pink tractors. Breast cancer is a serious disease and it will claim the lives of over 40,000 women over the course of each year and the combined efforts of all of the pink sales will raise millions of dollars to support breast cancer charities. So why do I still feel suspicious?
History of the Pink Peach Ribbon
Well for starters, the pink ribbon wasn’t always pink. In 1992 a woman named Charlotte Haley had begun a grassroots campaign of her own distributing peach ribbons with a card that read, “The National Cancer Institute annual budget is $1.8 billion, only 5 percent goes for breast cancer prevention. Help us wake up our legislators and America by wearing this ribbon.”
Haley was 68 years old and her family had been hard hit by breast cancer. She operated on a grassroots level distributing her ribbons at grocery stores and by word of mouth. She wrote letters, mainly to prominent women, to politicians and even to Dear Abby. Meanwhile, Self Magazine had already begun a breast cancer awareness program of its own and wanted to institute a ribbon campaign as well. They got in touch with Haley, but to their surprise she wanted nothing to do with them. Haley wanted her ribbon campaign to remain in the hands of people rather than a large corporation. Self Magazine got in touch with their lawyers who gave them some very simple and successful advice: pick a different color.
Marketing a Cause
One of the reasons Haley may have been so cynical about her ribbon campaign being directed by corporations was the fact that advertisers already knew about “cause driven marketing.” It had been established in the 1980s that if a consumer were offered a choice between one product that donated some amount of the profits to a charity and a competitor that did not, they would go for the charity aligned product. Recent studies confirm this behavior with 86 percent of American respondents saying they would be “very or somewhat likely to switch from one brand to another that is about the same in price and quality, if the other brand is associated with a cause.”1 Unfortunately, the marketing process to promote the product’s alignment is often far larger than the donation will ever be making the profit margin higher for the corporation than the actual donation.
But then again, any donation is better than no donation, right? Unfortunately this is once again wrong. When you make a donation via a product purchase you have no control over how or where that money will be put to use. Making an individual donation, on the other hand, allows the individual to make their own choice about who should receive their (whole) dollar. Despite all of the awareness of breast cancer that comes from pink ribbon campaigns, most consumers will consider their purchase of a pink product to be their donation and are much less likely to contribute further2. In the fine print of many pink products you may notice that there is a cap on donations. In other words, the packaging and marketing will remain the same, but the company will limit how much they donate to their set “goal.”
I am also cynical about the choice of the color pink. It was picked, in part, because breast cancer can strip a woman of things that we strongly identify with femininity. Although pink has not always been a “feminine” color it certainly has been for awhile along with many other popular breast cancer prevention tokens such as cosmetics, teddy bears, rhinestone jewelry, crayons, and even teddy bears and it makes me wonder if the campaign is feminizing or infantilizing.
Moreover, what of pink campaigns for products that may even contribute to breast cancer risk? Unfortunately, we don’t really know what causes breast cancer but some signs point to environmental factors that are present in some products that bear a pink ribbon. One prime example would be cosmetics which were the first pink product due to a predominantly female client base and sales force. However, many cosmetics are manufactured with known carcinogens.
Being an ethical consumer can take a lot of work. It takes an incredible amount of research to find out which companies are trying to contribute and which ones are being deeply exploitative of the pain and suffering of cancer victims and a potential customer’s desire to put an end to that suffering. It’s a fantastic tactic because it allows us to shop “guilt free.” Perhaps it is a good time to check the desire to make an impulse buy. With the actual donation from the product being very minimal, purchasing something you wouldn’t ordinarily buy because of its pink packaging adds more to the profit margin of that company more than it adds to breast cancer prevention and awareness. If you’re purchasing a gift for a loved one who is fighting breast cancer or is a breast cancer survivor it can be helpful to consider whether or not they want a pink colored product. It’s possible they may be inundated with a house full of pink colored things when it simply isn’t actually their favorite color. Even though it takes some extra effort, an informed consumer can make their dollar go farther.
- Think Before You Pink
- (Karen Flaherty and William Diamond, “The Impact of Consumers’ Mental Budgeting on the Effectiveness of Cause-Related Marketing,” American Marketing Association Conference Proceedings, 10, 1999: 151-52.)
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