From the Executive Director: The Organic Process of Activism: Think Before You Pink, Then and Now

by Barbara Brenner

Way back in 2000, a close friend of mine talked to me about a conversation she had with someone doing a three-day breast cancer walk. The upshot of that conversation was a suggestion that BCA should try to determine where all the money raised in breast cancer walks was ending up. (Back then, the walks had just recently begun taking place throughout the country.) What followed from this conversation is something I call the organic process of activism, where one thing leads to the next, and a different kind of movement begins to take shape.

In response to my friend’s question, we started doing some digging, and I wrote a column for theBCA Source entitled “Exercise Your Mind” (newsletter #58, March/April 2000). That column turned into an Op-Ed in the San Francisco Chronicle that was picked up by other newspapers. As a result, BCA started hearing from folks all over the country who asked if BCA knew about various products being sold to raise money for breast cancer, how much money was really being donated, and where it was going.

As the questions mounted, and as more and more breast cancer cause marketing (the practice of trying to increase sales of a product by linking it to a social cause) took place, it became clear that the issue of breast cancer fundraising practices went far beyond walks. So BCA expanded its focus. The result, in 2002, was the launch of our Think Before You Pink campaign.

In the first year, we focused on breast cancer cause marketing in general, placing a print ad in theNew York Times. The result was lots of public attention to breast cancer cause marketing. Several of the worst offenders (companies that gave mere pennies to breast cancer from their sales, or that mislead the public about their efforts), including the Eureka Co. (the vacuum cleaner manufacturer) and American Express, actually stopped doing this kind of marketing.

In 2003, we turned our attention for the first time to the two-timing cause-marketing companies—those that claim to care about women’s lives by making a commitment to breast cancer but whose products are linked to the disease. Inspired by our allies in the environmental movement, we labeled these companies “pinkwashers.” We placed another print ad in the New York Times,focused specifically on cosmetics companies—Avon, Revlon, Estée Lauder—that raise money for breast cancer research and support but that use chemicals in their products that have been linked to breast cancer and other health problems.

The 2003 campaign led Breast Cancer Action, in partnership with a number of other organizations and allies in the business community, to file a resolution calling on Avon shareholders to ask the company to remove harmful chemicals from its products. These efforts ultimately led to Avon agreeing to remove certain phthalates from its cosmetics and to the creation of the National Safe Cosmetics Campaign. And in 2005, California became the first state in the nation to require cosmetics companies to disclose the carcinogens and reproductive toxins in their products when it passed the Safe Cosmetics Act.

By 2004, Think Before You Pink had become a web-based campaign focused on the lack of coordination of breast cancer funding. With a short online animated video, we encouraged people to contact the major breast cancer research and funding agencies to work together to solve the breast cancer puzzle. Many people wrote to these entities, and the responses we received were less than reassuring, since each described itself as working with others, but, in each instance, in very different ways.

In 2005, the campaign returned its focus to the cause-marketing companies themselves, calling for more transparency and accountability. An online Flash video asked how much money was raised by the thousands of pink ribbon products and how much was spent marketing them. Through an online action item at, activists e-mailed several cause-marketing companies and asked a series of questions to help determine whether buying the product would be as good for women with breast cancer as it would be for the company.

As a result of Think Before You Pink and activist efforts, two of the major beneficiaries of cause marketing—the Komen Foundation and the Breast Cancer Research Foundation—encouraged consumers to ask questions before buying pink ribbon products.

By 2006, Think Before You Pink was so well known that activists and reporters contacted BCA throughout the year to find out what was happening with breast cancer cause marketing. What was less clear was whether people understood who and what “pinkwashers” were, so in 2007 we zeroed in on this particular set of cause marketers. We targeted car manufacturers—Ford, BMW, and Mercedes—that have breast cancer–related marketing campaigns, while at the same time manufacturing cars that emit carcinogens in their exhaust. We also generated activist e-mails to the companies through the campaign web site.

As you can see from this issue of the BCA Source, our focus in 2008 is on pinkwashers again, since these companies are exposing people to toxic substances, while claiming to care about women’s lives.

By now, of course, this campaign has reached tens of thousands of people. It’s been featured as a case study in effective advocacy campaigns by Fenton Communications, and was chosen as the Yahoo! pick of the month in October 2007. It has been featured in newspapers ranging from the New York Times to the Omaha World Herald and has been a topic of discussion throughout the blogosphere.

The campaign exists and succeeds because people just like you asked for it, made it a reality, and continue to take action to address the issues that it raises. Working together, we can change the behavior of cause-marketers, especially the pinkwashing companies. And when those companies change, other companies pay attention and change, too. Everyone benefits, thanks to your efforts.

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