Are We Drowning in Pink?

I wrote the other day about the passing of breast cancer survivor and Pink Ribbon advocate Evelyn Lauder.

In a somewhat unfortunate twist, the iconic symbol that Ms. Lauder so tirelessly promoted, has recently come under attack.

Last month, which was Breast Cancer Awareness Month, several media outlets, including CBS and NPR ran articles about concerns that Pink Ribbon campaigns may be going too far. That “Pink Ribbon Fatigue” is setting in.

Now, before you start writing to me about how the National Cancer Institute estimates 40,000 women will die of breast cancer this year, and 230,000 new cases will be diagnosed, and isn’t breast cancer awareness an important issue, my answer is, of course, YES.

Is raising money to support breast cancer research important? YES.

But, as Karuna Jagger, of the group Breast Cancer Action, a San Francisco based group that has lead the campaign to question pink products, says:

“At one time, pink was the means. Now, it’s almost become the end in itself. In its most simplistic forms, pink has become a distraction. You put a pink ribbon on it, people stop asking questions.”

Activists have coined the expression “pinkwashing.” It’s when a company doing a pink breast cancer promotion is also selling and profiting from pink-themed products. Joanna Weiss  in a Boston Globe article “Turning PINK into GREEN” comments:

“The application of pink – in the name of raising money and steering women toward the radiologist’s office – does seem to get broader and cheerier each year. Now, we have NFL balls decorated with pink ribbons and world landmarks bathed in pink light, from the White House to the ancient Mayan pyramids of Chichen Itza.”

Barbara Brenner, Executive Director of Breast Cancer Action, questions that with all the money being raised during these promotions, why haven’t we made more progress?  “If shopping could cure breast cancer, it would be cured by now.”

The Boston Women’s Health Book Collective (BWHBC), also known as Our Bodies, Ourselves, summarizes the concerns as fourfold:

  1. Does the explosion of pink products promote a false sense of doing something about breast cancer?
  2. Are the dollars collected being directed in the most effective way?
  3. Does the pink campaign foster gender stereotypes in both its color focus and in which products it promotes?
  4. Are some of the pink products actually harmful to women’s health?

This last point is probably most egregiously displayed in the KFC’s “Pink Bucket” campaign.

In Spring 2010, KFC, said it would donate 50 cents to the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation for each specially pinkwashed bucket of KFC sold. Note that this was about  the same time it introduced the “Double Down” sandwich- where the bread is replaced by breaded chicken cutlets.

As obesity is a risk factor for breast cancer, is a bucket of fried chicken an appropriate way to earn money for the cause?

The Susan G. Komen Foundation, founded in 1982, is the largest breast cancer foundation in the world. It’s invested more than $685 million to breast cancer research and $1.3 billion to community programs that help with mammograms, transportation and other needs of breast cancer patients.
They were unrepentant regarding the KFC campaign. Spokesperson Katrina McGee told NPR:

In regards to the KFC program, listen, we believe in reaching people where they live, work and play. And KFC helps us do that in very small communities where they may be the only fast food restaurant in town, and in many large communities where the franchisees, and those are really the people who made the contribution, sent their commitment to breast cancer to race for the cure. They did education in their restaurants and a host of other things to support the partnership.

Watch here, as Stephen Colbert so “eloquently” puts it (The relevant section begins at about 1:14):


The Breast Cancer Action groups suggests that we “Think Before You Pink.” That is, that we ask ourselves some critical questions before deciding to purchase a pinkwashed product:

  1. How much money from your purchase actually goes toward breast cancer? Is the amount clearly stated on the package?
  2. What is the maximum amount that a company will donate?
  3. How are the funds being raised?
  4. To what breast cancer organization does the money go, and what types of programs does it support?
  5. What is the company doing to assure that its products are not actually contributing to the breast cancer epidemic?

Buy an Assault Rifle and Support Breast Cancer Awareness. Choose from:

AR-15 Pink Panther or “Hello Kitty” AK-47

Do you think the “pink ribbon” campaign has gone overboard?  Or, do you believe “the more money the better”?

Michele R. Berman, M.D. was Clinical Director of The Pediatric Center, a private practice on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. from 1988-2000, and was named Outstanding Washington Physician by Washingtonian Magazine in 1999. She was a medical internet pioneer having established one of the first medical practice websites in 1997. Dr. Berman also authored a monthly column for Washington Parent Magazine.

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