Think Before You Pink


It’s Breast Cancer Month

Another meme turned up on Facebook this week, insisting that I like and share in order to show my commitment to breast cancer. It had a cheerful pink ribbon in the corner and a smattering of butterflies and flowers (because breast cancer is pink and girly).

My local shop has only recently stopped selling bottled water with pink ribbons printed on the label. I guess the company have sold enough breast cancer water and now they’re back to selling the ordinary stuff.

The newsagents have a pink box on the counter with badges and pens and plastic bracelets and stickers and tiny fluffy bears, all pink, that I’m encouraged to buy in the name of breast cancer but when I look at them I wonder about all this pinkness and how much good it really does.

The best way to support cancer research is to donate money directly to cancer research.

Unfortunately, most people won’t and so a range of campaigns have sprung up to ‘raise awareness and funds’. I have four main areas of concern:

  1. Does sharing a meme or a message on social media really translate to increased awareness and funding?
  2. Do companies really care about funding research or is pink branding just a way to sell more products and improve their company profile?
  3. How much of the price of a pink item actually goes to cancer research or services?
  4. Do any of these products or companies actually contribute to the conditions that cause cancer and, if so, is this just a way for them to ‘pink wash’ their activities?

Social media and ‘I know who will share this and who won’t’

My daughter tells me that a lot of what happens on social media falls under the banner of ‘slacktivism’; it helps people to feel like they’re making a difference but it doesn’t really achieve anything at all. Real activism usually requires you to do a bit more, like actually writing to your local member or actually donating to a charity. Having said that, I have seen some great reminders about regular breast checks and good health.

If you’re tempted to share a meme or a ‘like and share’ message then your best bet is to take a moment to see where it came from. Social media is full of people trying to build profiles and generate traffic. They know that adding breast cancer to their material is likely to get them some traction. The cancer cause is secondary to their own success (if they care about it at all).

Be particularly suspicious of anything that tries to guilt you into sharing it; ‘I know who will share this and who won’t’. Seriously? Best advice: only share material from genuine cancer charities or create your own memes. Social media is a great platform for raising awareness and sharing information. We just need to be sure of the source.

Why companies brand pink

Companies are all about making money. These days a lot of them are also interested in adding an ethical or socially responsible tag line to their profile. In some cases this is because people within the organisation have a genuine interest or personal experience with breast cancer and in others it’s a cynical decision to exploit the prevalence of breast cancer for profit.

How do you tell the difference? Well, simply put, you can’t. There’s no doubt that pink branding can increase sales while also building a better relationship between the brand and its customers. This effect can continue even after the company removes the pink ribbon. Some of them are hoping to get you into the habit of buying their product because of the pink association with the expectation that you’ll become a loyal buyer. Subconsciously you’ll associate their product with being good and worthy.

I take nothing away from the millions (billions) of dollars raised for research using pink branding and campaigns. Breast cancer is now better funded than any other area of research.

Of course, there’s nothing to stop companies from just donating directly to research. There are some that do this. They don’t brand products or try to boost sales. They just make a donation to a relevant charity. I’m inclined to take them more seriously.

Best advice; don’t be tempted to buy something just because it has a pink ribbon attached to it and don’t rely upon a pink association as proof of an organisation’s commitment to cancer charities. Some of them are just using it to sell products.

How much money from pink branded products goes to charity?

In some cases a company will state what percentage of the sale price goes to charity but in most cases it remains a mystery. You’d need to trawl through a company’s annual report to find the donation and even then it might not be apparent. It could be rolled up into a general category or hidden in the accounting.

In some cases the charity has negotiated directly with the company for the right to use their name and their brand on the product. There is now a dazzling array of pinkness on everything from biscuits to car accessories, from drinks to power drills. Truth in advertising laws only require the claim of support to be true. This means that the return to cancer charities could be as little as one cent per item (or less) and the pink claim would be defensible.

If you’re serious about supporting a cancer charity then you’re better off donating directly to them and buying whichever product you would normally buy. Ignore the pink ribbon. There’s no legal minimum for a donation and no requirement for companies to include it on the product. I think there should be. If you’re selling me something on the basis that it’s going to generate income for a cancer charity then you should be required to list which charity and what percentage of my purchase price they’ll receive.

If you want to advertise your own support for breast cancer research then use the web sites of the relevant charities to buy items directly from them. This way you can be sure that a reasonable portion of the profit will go where you want it to go.

What if pink products cause cancer?

This is my greatest area of concern. Over the years I’ve seen some pretty dubious pink products, including some where the ingredients or manufacturing processes are highly suspect.

How pink is a product if it contains substances that are known or suspected carcinogens? This particularly applies to cosmetics, alcohol and anything made of plastic.

How pink is a product if it’s made by mostly female workers in an overseas sweatshop with no occupational health and safety? So we’re building awareness of our health while completely ignoring theirs.

How pink is a product if the practices of the company that make it are polluting our environment and thereby contributing to higher cancer rates?

How pink is a product if it’s single use, or poorly made, and destined to end up in landfill before the end of October, thereby contributing to the massive pollution crisis that ultimately affects all of us?

How pink is a fund raiser if it encourages behaviour known to contribute to the risk of breast cancer? Champagne breakfasts, cocktail evenings, a night of drinking with the girls and all in spite of alcohol’s status as a category one carcinogen (same as cigarettes) leave me wondering about the drinking culture in Australia and why it seems impossible to run any sort of adult event without booze.

In the USA there’s a great charity called Breast Cancer Action. They run a campaign called ‘Think Before You Pink’ where they examine not just the products but also the charities. You can find information about who does what with cancer funding. They’re also involved in activism against companies that use the pink ribbon while engaging in behaviour that’s damaging to the environment, or companies that claim a pink alliance while promoting risky products or practices. Here’s a link:
Think Before You Pink

October is a great time for those of us still alive to reflect on how far we’ve come and what we’ve lost and gained during the experience. It can be a hard month for some because everywhere you look there are reminders of breast cancer and some of us are back to a life where we don’t think of it every six minutes.

I like to use it as a reminder to check my own health and behaviour. Am I keeping my promises to myself? Am I doing all I can to stay well? There’s always a few adjustments worth making.

I also like to choose a charity and make a donation. This year that included a friend who organised a group of mates to go surfing wearing bras and lots of pink. They call it ‘tubes for boobs’ and every cent they raise goes to the Cancer Council where it will be used for research into all kinds of cancer. Now that’s my kind of event.