A Journey Into the World of Pink Ribbon Marketing

Kira Jones

Kira Jones was a BCA summer intern.

by Kira Jones

For the last two years, the breast cancer movement has been the focus of both my personal and academic interests, so when I consider how many times I’ve used the phrase “I had no idea…” as an intern at BCA this summer, I’m more than slightly alarmed. It’s not that I’m necessarily concerned about my knowledge of this topic; rather, I’m shocked by how often the phrase has been my response to what we currently don’t know when it comes to breast cancer detection, treatment, research, and pink ribbon marketing.

My first introduction to BCA took place during my last semester as an undergraduate at the University of Utah. At that time, I was planning to attend graduate school to study how feminism was represented in the contemporary media, so I’d enrolled in an introductory feminist theory course to get some exposure to the field. When I reached the middle of the semester, burnout was on the horizon. So, when my instructor, former BCA board member Kim Lau, told my class we wouldn’t have any readings for a week in October, I was thrilled. Instead, we were going to study National Breast Cancer Awareness Month (NBCAM) as a contemporary feminist issue.

I didn’t know a lot about breast cancer when Lau informed my class of the upcoming lesson plan, and I was secretly grateful we’d be talking about the subject in class, because of my own fears about the disease. When I was in junior high, I had a neighbor who died of breast cancer when it metastasized to her brain. I worried about the disease personally and was also quite aware of its ability to claim lives.

I was also very well acquainted with the pink ribbon. I’d noticed the ribbon on Yoplait yogurt lids, bags of M&Ms, and Tic Tacs. Although I was gaining very little knowledge about the complexity of breast cancer from these products, I was definitely learning how to associate the color pink with the disease. If I walked into a store, I didn’t even need to see a ribbon to know the product was for breast cancer awareness. If the item was a shade of pink, my brain automatically made the connection—even if it wasn’t the right one.

This was my knowledge of breast cancer when Lau announced our assignment for the week. She told us to keep an eye out for pink ribbon products, familiarize ourselves with BCA’s Think Before You Pink (TB4UP) campaign, and read Barbara Ehrenreich’s article “Welcome to Cancerland.” She wanted us to find examples of items sold during October and to see if it was possible to determine how much corporations were giving to breast cancer and where the money was going.

Delighted by the fact that I would simply have to pay attention to my surroundings, surf the Web, and read a magazine article to complete the assignment, I took stock of the pink ribbon products I had in my possession. There were two items—pink ribbon Post-it Notes and a pink ribbon pendant. I’d purchased the Post-it Notes because I needed them and figured, why not buy a pack with the ribbon? When I bought the pendant, the cashier asked if I wanted to donate to breast cancer research. I really wanted to support the cause, and this seemed like a good way to do that.

After I noted my own pink ribbon products and spotted a few more in the grocery store, I went to the TB4UP web site. It was only after I scrolled through the 2005 edition of the “Parade of Pink” that I realized how many products were being sold during October, how much money was being made by the companies, and how little of that money was actually going to research. When I read that Cartier was selling a watch for $3,900 but capped its maximum donation at $30,000, I was shocked! I was suddenly very aware that my own contribution to the cause, by way of buying things, was probably not the most effective form of activism.

Before visiting the TB4UP web site, I hadn’t considered any of the critical questions BCA encourages consumers to ask before shelling out money for pink ribbon marketing campaigns. I didn’t know how much money from each of the products sold was going toward breast cancer or what percentage of the purchase price this represented. I didn’t know the maximum amount that would be donated, and I definitely didn’t know how much money was being spent marketing the product in the first place. I vaguely knew which organizations the campaigns were supporting, but I had no idea if the companies were doing anything to make sure their products weren’t contributing to the epidemic—I didn’t even know I was supposed to be asking that question!

There I was thinking companies were participating in what BCA termed “cause-marketing” because they simply cared about women’s lives. Little did I know they stood to benefit a great deal by doing so. In her book Pink Ribbons Inc., Samantha King explains that cause marketing is a way for “companies and brands to associate themselves with a cause as a means to build the reputation of a brand, increase profit, develop employee loyalty to the company, and add to their reputation as good corporate citizens.”1 So much for genuine corporate philanthropy.

However, what bothered me most was learning about companies that engage in pink ribbon marketing while making products that are known to cause, or suspected of causing, breast cancer. These “pinkwashers,” as BCA refers to them, were claiming to care about women’s health while simultaneously making products linked to the disease.

The following semester, I decided to take a critical research methods course. The course required one critical essay of publishable quality, and I chose to research the rhetoric of NBCAM and BCA. By the end of the semester, my head was swimming with questions about why, after 20 years of awareness campaigns and research, we didn’t know more about breast cancer and its connection with toxins in the environment, and where all the money from pink ribbon campaigns was going. I couldn’t let the issue go and took it with me, all the way to Missoula, Montana, where I began graduate school last fall.

I’ve spent the last year searching for answers to my questions about breast cancer, including the links between the disease and our environment, and trying to explain why the TB4UP campaign is such a significant force in the breast cancer movement. For one study, I showed the TB4UP campaign to college women and found that their perception of activism changed dramatically. Prior to viewing the campaign, the women considered buying things as a mode of (progressive) political activism. Once they learned about TB4UP, they told me they felt more empowered to make a difference by talking to the people they care about, asking questions, and demanding answers about breast cancer.

Because BCA encourages us to become active in the decision-making process, rather than “shopping for the cure,” I decided to finally take action and participate in the movement by interning at BCA. My first task was to research pink ribbon products for the Parade of Pink. It is an eye-opening experience to sort through hundreds of items on the Web in an effort to find products that illustrate the magnitude of pink ribbon marketing. I’ve spent hours on the phone trying to connect with the one person who knows something—really anything—about how much a product costs, how much a company plans to give, and where the money goes. It’s really not as easy as one might think. I often refer to myself as a “supersleuth” as I navigate my way through automated telephone systems in an effort to actually speak to human beings. No one should have to play detective to get a few simple questions answered.

It isn’t just about transparency, though. It’s also about accountability. Companies need to disclose where they plan to donate their money and how much they’ll give, while also ensuring their products are good for our health.

BCA urges companies that claim to care about breast cancer to start living up to these standards. Once again in October, companies will encourage consumers to buy products many of us can’t afford, some of which simultaneously pollute our environment. This fall, the TB4UP campaign will target these polluters, such as the dairy, cosmetic, and auto industries—highlighting the car companies—as examples of pinkwashers.

BCA feels this decision is particularly important given the fact that auto exhaust contains chemicals linked to breast cancer. Both Ford and Mercedes Benz are manufacturing vehicles as part of their cause-marketing campaigns, and BMW will continue its Ultimate Drive campaign, all of which encourage customers to drive polluting cars. The end of a tailpipe is not clean, and a pink ribbon on it doesn’t change that fact.

As my internship at BCA comes to an end, I consider my time here to be proof that a young woman with a passion and dedication to a cause, and ability to consume copious amounts of coffee, can be a force in the breast cancer movement. Activism isn’t always about doing “big” acts of demonstration. Sometimes it’s about small actions such as asking questions and demanding answers from pink ribbon marketers. By believing in the possibility of real change, and acting on those beliefs, we can work to truly eliminate breast cancer.

Kira Jones is a graduate student at the University of Montana in Missoula, where she is studying rhetoric, feminism, women’s health issues, and social movement theory.

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