Breast Cancer Awareness Month 2008: The Best of the Worst Marketing

10 years ago

I loathe Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Don't get me wrong - the idea of promoting breast health is fantastic. I am in a high risk category for breast cancer. When she was 33 years old, my mother noticed pus oozing out of her left nipple. She immediately went to the doctor, and a biopsy indicated that it was breast cancer. With a five year old and an 10 month old at home, my mom was rushed into surgery for a radical mastectomy. This saved her life, and she has been cancer-free for almost thirty years now. I want all women to have the same success rate as my mom, but what October has turned into is a free-for-all profit center for corporations that exploit women's fears and often even sell products that contain cancer causing chemicals.

I wrote extensively about the pink ribbon scams at BlogHer in October 2007 and October 2006, as well as at The Panelist. The first problem with buying pink is that only pennies of your purchase are actually donated to nonprofit breast cancer organizations; the rest of the money goes into corporate profits. The second problem is where your money may or may not go; not all charities are created equally. (For more information on these first two points, check out Pink Ribbons, Inc.: Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy by Samantha King.) The last (and scariest) issue is that many corporations sell women products that may cause breast cancer under the pink ribbon banner. Last week, GreenGirlyGirl explained how this works:

This year in the US Yoplait is running a pink campaign where you send in a yogurt lid and 10 cents are donated to Breast Cancer. Hmmmm. It costs 39 cents to mail the lid?! You would need to eat 100 yogurts to give $10! Wouldn't it just be easier to donate $10 directly? Plus the yogurt contains dairy product from cows that have been given rBGH (a growth hormone) which may be linked to increased rates of cancer (according to Think Before You Pink, Wal-mart and Starbucks are already making their dairy products rBGH free).

Perhaps the biggest concern for Think Before You Pink though is the cosmetics companies. True, they are amongst the largest fundraisers. But they are very profitable (Estee Lauder sales are over $8 billion; its donation to Pink Ribbon campaign in the US - on the back of selling product - was $500,000). Estee Lauder, as well as every other major cosmetic company, has refused to sign the Compact for Safe Cosmetics. According to the Environmental Working Group in the US only 11% of the 10,500 ingredients in beauty products have been tested. Even of those tested there are those ingredients that have been linked to increased risk for cancer. For example, paraben, a very common ingredient in beauty products, is estrogenetic. The greater our exposure to estrogen, the higher the risk of breast cancer. The cosmetic industry would say that they are present in very small quantities in each product, but it is the sum of all the stuff we put on us that matters.

Think Before You Pink is a wonderful public awareness program conducted by Breast Cancer Action, an advocacy group whose mission "carries the voices of people affected by breast cancer to inspire and compel the changes necessary to end the breast cancer epidemic." Their guidelines on the cause-related marketing of breast cancer are valuable to anyone muddling through the sea of pink this October. Before buying a pink item, BCA suggests that you ask:

  • How much money from your purchase actually goes to the cause?
  • What is the maximum amount that will be donated?
  • How much money was spent marketing the product?
  • How are the funds being raised?
  • To what breast cancer organization does the money go, and what types of programs does it support?
  • What is the company doing to assure that its products are not contributing to the breast cancer epidemic?

In other words, Think Before You Pink. If shopping could cure breast cancer, it would be cured by now.

That said, hundreds of companies are hoping to lure money out of our wallets by slapping a pink ribbon on their products this month. Since laughter is the best medicine (or at the very least, it's better to laugh than cry), I thought it would be fun to highlight some of the most inane, ridiculous, and/or offensive products out there this month. (Thanks to Cool Mom Picks for a few great tips.)

First, we have the Folgers "wake-up call" campaign. Not only can you buy a lovely pink vat of coffee (the pink container is a limited-edition - so hurry, ladies! You don't want to miss out on a pink plastic container!), but you can send a "wake-up call" e-card to the ones you love, reminding them to get regular breast exams and mammograms. Hopefully, your loved one has insurance that will cover this. If not, good luck. Oh, and isn't there anecdotal evidence linking caffeine (which is found in coffee) to breast cysts? Why yes indeed there is! Drink up.

Next up is Office Max, with 17 different products to show that your office really supports efforts to raise breast cancer awareness! From pens to staplers to an entire desktop filing kit, the pink products will make any office prettier! Again, hopefully employers who stock up on these products offer generous health insurance plans to their workers, including time off to help sick family members. If not, just deeply inhale the pink Sharpie (10 whole cents to breast cancer research!) and perhaps the resulting high can take your mind off of it.

I saved the best for last. AstraZeneca, the drug company that manufactures the breast cancer drug tamoxifen as well as a known carcinogen, Acetochlor, through a related company, asks women to create a "Celebration Doll". This is part of their "Celebration Chain" (did I see this in a porno once, or does it just sound sleazy?), "celebrating amazing women who've faced breast cancer." The company invested heavily in ads to promote the Celebrate Dolls. AstraZeneca will give $1, for a total up to $25,000 (!) to "a breast cancer charity" (love the specifity on where the money is going), but not stop making pesticides that cause cancer. That would be too expensive. I'm not sure my mom is really honored by the animated faceless doll I began to create to "celebrate the joy she brings" to my life, but I did get to pick what her hair and outfit looked like. Could I be more empowered in the fight against breast cancer? No, I didn't think so.

Now that we've laughed and cried, what should you do this October to help with breast cancer issues? Instead of throwing money away on products that you don't need (and worse, may make you sick), give donations directly to reputable breast cancer charities. Not only will they receive the full amount of money, but you can also write it off your taxes! Nonmonetary investments are just as important. On the Our Bodies, Ourselves blog, Pauli Ojea from BCA asks people to get involved in preventing breast cancer by sending an e-mail to General Mills telling them to put a lid on rBGH. Not only will this save you money in economic times in which every dime counts, but you'll also be doing something that truly can make a difference in the fight against breast cancer.

Suzanne also blogs about life at Campaign for Unshaved Snatch (CUSS) & Other Rants. Her first book, Off the Beaten (Subway) Track: New York City's Best Unusual Attractions, is about taking a "subway road trip." Incidentally, using mass transit reduces automobile emissions, "which contain polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, harmful chemicals known to cause cancer."

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