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It’s All For A Cause, You Know: Breast Cancer, Pinkwashing, and Objectification

October, as many readers are no doubt aware, is ‘breast cancer awareness’ month in the United States. The tide of pink-branded products, courtesy of a campaign started in the early 1990s by the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, might have been a tipoff. Of course, pink branding is also spilling over into other months of the year—it really started to ramp up in September this year, but you’d be hard-pressed not to find some pink-branded products, or witty ‘breast cancer awareness’ slogans, at other months of the year as well.

This term, ‘awareness,’ is very nebulous. Awareness is not action, and it doesn’t necessarily translate into action, depending on how such campaigns are framed. Many people, at this juncture, are aware of breast cancer. They know it exists and they know that some people are more at risk of getting it than others. What they may be less sure of is what to do about it; some campaigns do promote early diagnosis through screening, for example, but not all do. Fewer campaigns discuss what people can do for breast cancer patients and people in recovery, although some organisations (including Komen) are actually very active in providing support to breast cancer patients through activities like educational resources, grants, and other assistance. There’s also the vague idea of researching for a cure, which also raises the spectre of the ‘funding race’ and debates about whether some cancers are overfunded.

Breast cancer was an extremely taboo topic until the 1970s, when then First Lady Betty Ford started openly discussing it. Before, it was something ‘not nice,’ something people didn’t address, and women died because they weren’t aware and couldn’t access treatment. It continued to be treated as a ‘women’s issue,’ receiving contempt and disinterest from the medical establishment, long after Ford came out about her mastectomy. One of the reasons that changed was the work of feminists and other activists who took to the streets to demand justice for breast cancer patients, to demand attention for the disease.

‘Women’s diseases’ receive less funding and attention, because they are deemed of lesser importance despite affecting half the population. This continues to be a problem with conditions like fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, and chronic pain, all of which disproportionately impact women. Not only are these conditions underfunded, they’re also maligned and stigmatised by suggestions that they are ‘fake’ and thus doesn’t require research, let alone treatment. Women are less likely to be able to receive adequate pain control for chronic pain conditions, for example, despite the fact that they are more likely to be affected by them.

And then came the pink branding. Which, initially, was designed to create a rallying point and a form of solidarity; the pink ribbon created a single, distinctive symbol to associate with breast cancer, and to associate with the disease in awareness campaigns. Komen became quite aggressively defensive of its pink ribbon, but it’s too late. The tide of pink has been unleashed, even though a recent study suggests that pinkification may actually alienate the audience it’s attempting to reach, as discussed at Sociological Images. The very cuteification has become its undoing.

The cuteification of breast cancer through pink ribbons has been heavily criticised, as has its increasing association with cause marketing. Breast Cancer Action is so concerned about the use of cause marketing that it started an entire campaign, Think Before You Pink, to, yes, raise awareness among members of the general public about this issue. Slapping a pink ribbon, or pink branding, on something doesn’t necessarily mean the proceeds go to breast cancer. Furthermore, a number of pink-branded products are actually known to contribute to the development of breast and other cancers.

Lovely. Incidentally, Think Before You Pink has a good checklist of critical questions to ask before buying pink-branded merchandise, if your goal is to contribute to breast cancer research, treatment, and support through your purchases. Given the ubiquity of cause marketing for breast cancer, it’s actually getting challenging to not buy pink branded products, which makes it especially important to be able to buy wisely, since if you’re going to be forced to contribute to cause marketing, you might as well make sure some of that money ends up in a good place; at the grocery store this weekend, I noticed that all the yeast was branded with pink ribbons for vague ‘breast cancer awareness’ purposes, for instance, which forced me to do a quick Google to find out which would be the best option for me to buy.

Pinkwashing, as it’s known, is big, big business, and it’s getting bigger every year. It generates substantial corporate profits at the same time that it’s a superb public relations move. Companies believed to be involved in social causes enjoy a better reputation among members of the public, encourage people to think of them as socially responsible. It’s a great two for one deal, for companies interested in increasing their bottom line and expanding their market base.

There’s also a deeply sinister twist to a lot of ‘awareness’ actions around breast cancer; for one thing, they focus almost exclusively on cis women, excluding other sectors of the population at risk for the disease. For another, many are deeply dehumanising. They’re centred around subjects like ‘saving second base.’ Breast preservation is often core to these catchy little mottos around breast cancer; ‘save the boobies,’ ‘save the ta-tas,’ etc. There’s no mention of the bodies under those breasts, just the breasts. And some breast cancer marketing goes beyond dehumanising and into exploitative. ‘Grope for the cause.’ ‘You check them or I will.’

Breast cancer survivors and people at increased risk for breast cancer, like myself, have spoken out about these campaigns. Have talked about how these measures ‘for a cause’ make us feel dehumanised and worthless, reduced to a set of mammary glands and nothing else. And, in my case, if I am take the framing of these campaigns literally, despite being a 32DDD with variant BRCA1 and 2, I’m not at risk of breast cancer, because I’m not a woman, and it’s a women’s disease. Yet, defenders insist that the cause is ‘too important’ to worry about feelings, and that too much good work is done to be stressed about possibly alienating some of the people these campaigns are supposedly trying to reach, let alone actively harming people who have expressed deep unhappiness with these objectifying campaigns.

‘It’s all for a cause’ and ‘it’s for your own good’ are two claims that are often repeated to justify harmful actions. In ‘breast cancer awareness’ where such campaigns don’t appear to actively contribute to anything meaningful, it’s a slap in the face to people who dare to voice opposition to the framing or handling of such campaigns when they’re told that they should sit down and shut up. Despite valid concerns not just about how the campaigns are conducted, but what they actually do, they’re steamrollered by people who suggest they’re somehow pro-cancer if they have a problem with cause marketing and objectification that don’t appear, in any concrete way, to benefit the very cause under discussion. Does posting your bra colour contribute in some way to support for breast cancer prevention and treatment?

Breast cancer has transitioned from an underfunded, neglected disease to a juggernaut, and in the process, campaigns around the condition have warped from their original purpose. It’s become a popular cause for all the wrong reasons, like the idea that it’s important because breast cancer might cause people to lose their breasts, and that would be terrible indeed. Breast cancer also causes people to lose their lives. People. Not just cis women, but people.

Breast cancer rates are directly connected with issues like poverty and racism. This tends to get minimal coverage. The fact, for example, that toxic wastes are routinely dumped in low income communities of colour is rarely discussed. As is the fact that the safety of numerous chemicals in common use still remains uncertain, and some of these may be contributing to breast and other cancers. Or the fact that many people, despite efforts on the part of charities, can’t access early screening, let alone treatment and followup care, because of the state of health care in the United States.

‘Their hearts are in the right place,’ people say, dismissively, when people criticise breast cancer ‘awareness’ campaigns. And to some extent, they are right. We all care about breast cancer, and we all want to do something about it, and that’s at the core of all these campaigns. Which makes it all the more sad when cause marketing and objectification don’t even accomplish their stated goal.

Comprehensive public campaigns should be inclusive and incisive. For cause marketing, which, yes, does generate a lot of money for research, clear information should be provided about the percentage of each purchase that goes to breast cancer, and whether companies have minimum or maximum contributions. Branded products should indicate which organisation they support, and how that organisation uses funds; for direct patient support? Treatment/cure research? Increasing access to treatment? Preventative screening? Education? This information should be disclosed up front on the packaging; after all, if a campaign really is as great as it claims, it shouldn’t be afraid to tell people exactly what it’s doing.

Campaigns should have clearly stated, transparent goals that include all people at risk for breast cancer, which is all people, everywhere. They should target specific populations at higher risk with campaigns sensitised to their specific issues. They should include all the things they already include, like raising funds for research into screening, prevention, diagnosis, treatment, and patient support, without the objectification and cuteification. It’s possible to make that happen, to push back on the pink tide, if people are willing.

Because it’s going to be a lot easier to tell the difference between a legitimate breast cancer campaign designed to generate actual results and a spurious attempt at capitalising on breast cancer when the legitimate campaigns are presented seriously and honestly. That doesn’t mean they can’t be fun, that doesn’t mean they need to be all serious business, all the time. All I’m asking for is a little harm reduction and responsibility. Because the cause is too important.

19 Comments

  1. nktw wrote:

    Thanks, s.e. Interesting and important, especially in asking what ‘awareness’ does and noting who is left out in this equation – given the massive amount of money generated, couldn’t there be help for lower-income people to get screened? At least?

    Léa Pool’s Pink Ribbons Inc. was screened at the Toronto Film Fest this year and was a hot ticket – I think we may be hearing more about this in the future:

    http://tiff.net/filmsandschedules/tiff/2011/pinkribbonsinc

    Tuesday, October 18, 2011 at 12:07 pm | Permalink
  2. OH MY GOD OH MY GOD how I hate pinkwashing and the idiot tactics that are absolved in the name of “awareness.” Part of my bitterness stems from ongoing resentment that “awareness” failed to save the life of a dear friend, but most of it comes from the carte blanche companies & individuals feel “awareness” grants them. I Heart Boobies bracelets? Ta-ta “celebrations” (aka wet t-shirt contests) in bars?

    Puh-leeze.

    Tuesday, October 18, 2011 at 1:46 pm | Permalink
  3. Shannon W. wrote:

    I am as girly as they come, and I DESPISE pink washing – for any cause. I also resent being sold ‘girl’ tools – hammers with flowers, etc. But try to explain to someone why I think the pink-washing, that sexualising women’s cancers, that funding research while patients languish is not only ridiculous, it’s insulting to those dying of cancer, and those left trying to care for them. Millions of dollars are spend on pink crap, but patients have to buy their own aspirin at our local ‘cancer house.’ … I could go on. A lot. But clearly I’m ranting to the choir. Lord save us from idiotic Facebook campaigns about bra colour, and from cheap plastic trinkets.

    Tuesday, October 18, 2011 at 3:10 pm | Permalink
  4. Shannon W,

    Why is funding research ridiculous? I understand that current treatments are expensive, but they’re not so great and need improvement.

    Tuesday, October 18, 2011 at 5:57 pm | Permalink
  5. Jane wrote:

    I tried to have this discussion with my mom (i.e. why I object to random-ass companies slapping a pink ribbon on everything), but her position was more or less “Every little bit helps!” I don’t know — I guess I resent feeling like I’m being manipulated into giving props to companies I find unremarkable or actively objectionable other than their minimal “support” for breast cancer.

    What this reminds me of was this sort of bizarre “Opera for the cure” (sponsored by the Susan G. Komen foundation) I ended up attending with family and friends in Omaha. It was. . . deeply unpleasant. The organizers decided the way to talk about breast cancer was as an archetypal story that was defined by a single, stereotypical woman “as daughter, mother, friend, and wife.” There were so many people left out of their gooey, sentimental, euphemistic, simplistic “story” of a woman with breast cancer. It was like all the things wrong with the “pinkwashing” culture coalesced into one sticky, nauseating mess. (I was there with friends so I couldn’t say anything afterward lest I sound unsupportive. Uck.)

    Tuesday, October 18, 2011 at 6:30 pm | Permalink
  6. Gina Marie Wade wrote:

    I received a brochure from the grocery store advertising pink ribbon festooned pet food. Included in the brochure was a charm for a dog collar with a breast cancer message on it. For a dog. It was surreal.

    Wednesday, October 19, 2011 at 7:37 am | Permalink
  7. Bookbag wrote:

    Hi,
    I just started treatment for an aggressive stage 2 breast cancer and to me the whole pink-ribbon-product-buying, bra-colour-sharing bs is more magical thinking than anything else: ‘if I buy the pink ribbon yogurt, and overshare the colour of my bra on Facebook, I’ll be protected from cancer.’
    I don’t think it’s conscious, I just think it’s part of the underlying impetus.
    I HATE the idea that saving my breasts is more important than my life. BTW, I live in Canada, and recognize how lucky I am to live a 20 minute drive from my local cancer center, where I receive free treatments.

    Wednesday, October 19, 2011 at 9:52 am | Permalink
  8. Devery wrote:

    “Despite valid concerns not just about how the campaigns are conducted, but what they actually do, they’re steamrollered by people who suggest they’re somehow pro-cancer if they have a problem with cause marketing and objectification that don’t appear, in any concrete way, to benefit the very cause under discussion.” This applies to Lance Armstrong’s LIVESTRONG foundation as well, which spends millions of dollars on billboards and merch to “raise cancer awareness” and precious little on funding.

    Wednesday, October 19, 2011 at 2:23 pm | Permalink
  9. Perla Buttons wrote:

    @Bookbag: I wish you health and wellness.

    Every October, I feel a weird, messed up sense of relief that leukaemia – the type of cancer I had as an teenager – is not “marketed” in such a dehumanising fashion.

    What is disheartening is how the tide has turned in some “pinkwashing” discussions. Breast cancer awareness is seen by some folks as evidence that “the life of a woman is seen as more valuable than the life of a man”(?) and proof that Those Darn Feminists are taking over by plastering everything pink, ignoring all other life-threatening diseases.

    The Plug For Pink October and the comparative lack of attention to other cancers and health causes is 100% all feminism’s fault, apparently.

    It’s strange how many folks revile feminists, yet want us to fix absolutely, positively everything from the ground up!

    Thursday, October 20, 2011 at 2:49 am | Permalink
  10. samanthab wrote:

    A really good point about pinkwashing just came across my twitter feed, which is: many of the companies that pinkwash are also selling products containing known carcinogens and endocrine disruptors. This is a rundown of cosmetic companies that do so: http://crazysexylife.com/2011/whats-in-that-pink-ribbon-product/
    But there’s also no shortage of companies that pinkwash all while using BPA, vinyl, and PVC in products. Hypocrisy, thy name is corporate America.

    Thursday, October 20, 2011 at 3:34 pm | Permalink
  11. Diana wrote:

    As someone who works for one of my country’s biggest cancer charities, this is such a valuable thing to be saying. There’s such a stigma about saying negative things about something that’s (apparently) for a good cause, but so much of the time the money down’t get within a mile of that cause. The only thing that kind of jarred for me was “Breast cancer also causes people to lose their lives. People. Not just cis women, but people.” I completely understand (and agree with) what you’re saying in that paragraph, but that way of phrasing it just strikes me as, idk, off. That said, fantastic article :)

    Friday, October 21, 2011 at 1:36 pm | Permalink
  12. worst wrote:

    Another issue with these campaigns about women’s health, is that oftentimes they are advocating medical interventions that aren’t proven to be medically necessary. Think about that for a second. It’s scary.

    In the case of breast self-exams, the National Breast Cancer Coalition released a statement in which they said, “There is currently no scientific evidence from randomized trials that breast self-exam (BSE)
    saves lives or enables women to detect breast cancer at earlier stages. In addition, there are some
    data that show that BSE greatly increases the number of benign lumps detected, resulting in
    increased anxiety, physician visits, and unnecessary biopsies. Therefore, NBCC does not support
    efforts to promote and teach BSE on a population-wide level in any age group of women.”

    In the case of pelvic exams (specifically as a pre-requisite for getting birth control, some have called them “UNJUSTIFIED INFRINGEMENT ON CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS, GOVERNMENTAL COERCION, AND BAD PUBLIC POLICY.” (sorry for the caps, too lazy to re-type it.) (see http://www.law.harvard.edu/students/orgs/jlg/vol27/dixon.php)

    Sunday, October 23, 2011 at 1:06 am | Permalink
  13. Sarahred wrote:

    Really interesting. As someone who works in familial cancer I try to support various causes but usually only when I know where the money is going. The craze for pink ribboning everything I took with a grain of salt and donate directly to good research centers instead

    Sunday, October 23, 2011 at 4:43 am | Permalink
  14. sickntired wrote:

    No advances have made made whatsoever to STOP breast cancer with the Billions going into “research”. I fear they already know what causes it and now have switched to “treating or detecting” breast cancer. Don’t forget, men get breast cancer too. Lots of money to be made is what it comes down to. Sorry, I would not donate to any of this nonsense pink nor any cancer research today! Cancer has not been “cured” in 60 years of research. The same with all those “foundations” like Muscular Dystrophy, etc. Just one giant commercial enterprise it seems.

    Sunday, October 23, 2011 at 11:12 pm | Permalink
  15. Annamove wrote:

    Two points that are coming up in this that really ring true to what’s wrong with the campaign in England.

    1. Female centric – Men are practically discouraged from involving themselves in many of the events used to raise money, this confuses the hell out of me, awareness should be for all of the lives that can be lost or affected by breast cancer. This seems to be a ‘little’ better in England now, but it still is ove-ridingly gimmicked and well yes, cutified. I don’t see why it’s such a bad thing to take things a little seriously sometimes!

    2. Deodorant companies sponsoring walkathons etc. Seriously, I did a money raising walk a fair few years ago, it was sponsored by Sure and they gave everyone a bag with a small can of deodorant. Even back then there were concerns that aluminium was contributing to a raise in cases directly from antiperspirant deodorant use, I’m not sure what direction that research is going in, but if I remember rightly I even wrote a letter to Sure about it, not that I got anything back of course. :|

    Really it just all comes out more like how the green campaigns seem to go, self congratulatory rubbish that fails to even educate let alone really improve anything. After the walk I had Cancer Research UK Ring me up and try to get me to sign up for something like £6 a week in donations, on a students income? I don’t think so! Unrealistic expectations of some of these companies that work for them… Urgh, and I still don’t really ‘get’ how to properly self check! So much for public awareness.
    (I know -how- I’m just never really sure I’m doing it 100% right, I think that’s mostly paranoia though :3 But something I’m not going to feel so bad about being paranoid about I guess.)

    Monday, October 24, 2011 at 5:14 pm | Permalink
  16. Archy wrote:

    Great article, I was wondering though does the pinkification make the awareness of male breast cancer even more harder to raise? Of course it’s mostly a female disease but I’ve heard the lack of awareness leaves men waiting too long to seek treatment which worsens their health.

    @Sickntired, there have been quite a few major breakthroughs in reducing the cancer rates such as the Gardasil vaccine, but some cancers are especially hard to treat and there are no easy fixes. It may take 50 more years of intensive research, or it may be next year. It’s a valid issue to research but we can’t choose at will when the magic breakthrough happens.

    Tuesday, October 25, 2011 at 10:31 am | Permalink
  17. sickntired wrote:

    Gardasil is baloney. Another vaccine that does nothing. There are over 100 different types of HPV and that vaccine only addreses 2 or 3 types. The public is being duped into accepting anything because the FDA says to do this thru massive media campaigns. Plus the side efects not even yet known could be more than detrimental to the population or reproduction abilities! Don’t trust the government, do your research first before you succumb to anything you are being told.

    Monday, October 31, 2011 at 1:03 am | Permalink
  18. Shallowwater wrote:

    @sickntired

    I realize that I’m quoting from wikipedia and you don’t sound like the sort to be swayed by such things, but protecting against the two strains of HPV that cause 70% of cervical caners and the two other strains that cause 90% of genital warts doesn’t sound like Gardasil does ‘nothing’ to me.

    Monday, November 7, 2011 at 9:03 pm | Permalink
  19. Felix wrote:

    Nice post. Find pinkwashing infuriating. This last week my mom, who was just diagnosed with cancer and I laughed heartily if ruefully at the pink ribbon branded mushrooms I was about to chop up for my omelet.

    On the plus side, the otherwise conventionally masculine guy who sold me shoes at the Sport Mart a few weeks ago was proudly decked out in hot pink shoes and earrings in honor of breast cancer “awareness”.

    So there’s that in favor of it.

    Monday, November 14, 2011 at 5:20 pm | Permalink