Why Brands Should Ditch Pinktober Lauren Nelson | October 10th, 2016


Image Source: PinkYourLifeUp.com

It’s October, which many associate with things like Halloween and the true beginning of fall. Unfortunately, for (too) many marketers, the colors this month will not be autumnal tones, but a gaudy pink. That’s right: it’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month once more, and brands, once more, are getting it all wrong.

On the surface, this is a worthy cause. Breast cancer impacts one in eight women. It’s estimated that there have been more than 246,000 new cases in 2016 alone. It’s a painful, traumatizing, and sometimes lethal diagnosis, and the search for a cure is so incredibly important.

But National Breast Cancer Awareness Month is an example of a drive for a cause that’s gone awry. Despite stated good intentions, the execution of the efforts is less than inspiring.

As Triple Pundit reports:

It [is] an important fundraising time for Susan G. Komen Foundation — which, despite what the name of its annual “Race for the Cure” implies, only spends 20 percent of its funds on research and 37 percent on “education.” All totaled, the organization spends more money on administration than it does on treatment. In recent years, Komen garnered plenty of criticism for its excessive executive pay and its penchant to put politics ahead of purpose on issues involving Planned Parenthood and stem cell research.

Meanwhile, Komen is notorious for transforming the pink ribbon into a monetizing machine that has enriched corporations while making plenty of women resentful that their very personal and often lonely pain is leveraged to garner companies’ positive press. Despite the annual outcry, companies continue to collect publicity, and revenues, on a bevy of cause marketing promotions that range from airline miles promotions to credit cards.

In other words, it’s often an initiative that does more to make contributors feel good and companies profit than it does for actual research and women suffering though the diagnosis.

And in some cases, the pinkwashing is just breathtakingly absurd. For instance, in 2014, drilling giant Baker Hughs made a $100,000 donation to the Susan G. Komen Foundation, and then turned around to distribute 1,000 pink drill bits used for fracking to “raise awareness.” The problem? Fracking involves dozens of chemicals known to cause cancer.



Image Source: Breast Cancer Consortium

And no small number of women have balked at the premise on principle, arguing that these attempts both trivialize and sexualize a disease that is anything but sexy.

As writer Parker Marie Molloy explains:

Why exactly does breast cancer, above other forms of cancer, find itself the centerpiece of the cancer research/marketing field? For lack of a better way to phrase this: breasts are sexy.

“Save the boobies!” “Save the ta-tas!” “Save Second Base!” “Feel Your Boobies!”

These are all examples of actual lines organizations have used to promote breast cancer awareness. The American Cancer Society takes the cake with its own tag line: “It’s Okay to Look at Our Chests!”

The sexualization of this all-too-real medical condition plays right into the classic marketing strategy of “sex sells.” Maybe so, but that doesn’t make it right; and it certainly doesn’t make it any less objectifying.

These slogans work to divide the woman, the human life at risk, from her breasts. When you say, “save second base,” you’re not only playing into the idea that the value of a woman lies solely in her looks, but you’re also suggesting that we should search for a cure for nothing else but to give men something to play with.

Breast cancer is serious, not sexy.

You don’t see this type of marketing approach for other types of cancer. You wouldn’t see a “save the nuts!” poster for testicular cancer awareness, would you? Why is it any more appropriate to say, “save the boobies?”

Molloy wrote this in 2013. She was not the first to point out the problem, and has not been the last. But despite the persistent outcry, the marketing machine continues, with major brands offering all sorts of pink-washed products. Even the NFL — an organization with a less than stellar record when it comes to issues that disproportionately impact women, like domestic violence and rape — drenches itself in pink during October.

It’s almost mind-boggling. You’ve got data suggesting these efforts are about profit more than progress. You’ve got those suffering and those who have survived begging us to cut it out. And yet, year after year, we get marketers who think going all pretty in pink is wise.

But as stated above, searching for a cure for breast cancer is still a very worthy cause, and it’s admirable that brands want to contribute. There are just better ways to do it than going pink. How?

  • Always research the organizations you’re supporting before you start. Instead of supporting an organization focused on “awareness,” donate to groups that are actually working towards a cure. The Breast Cancer Research Foundation is an excellent choice.
  • If you’re going to be altruistic, be altruistic. Don’t make it about a profit. Instead of selling something pink, hold a fundraising drive. Promise to match donations made in a specific manner. Keep the focus on the cause and not your pocket. Not only is that just the right thing to do, but it will create a more meaningful impact on your brand anyway.
  • Be conscientious of the marketing collateral you create to support such efforts. Brash imagery and language about saving the boobies might seem edgy and likely to garner attention, but if your efforts to help folks in need ignores the feelings of those you’re helping, you’re doing it wrong.

By all means, let’s find a cure. But let’s do it the right way, shall we?

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  • Vanessa Emilio

    Really disappointed and disgusted Lauren Nielsen, that you would consider titling and writing such an article. Any help for this increasingly growing problem, is better than none. Whilst I agree that many charitable organisations are ‘admin heavy’ and your stats for that particular organisation may be correct -there are many organisations that are not taking or focused on profits that also help the breast cancer cause. I note you mention none of these.

    To further state that Breast Cancer month has gone ‘awry’ and should be reconsidered as a comment and really says alot about your journalism/blogging information and skills (or perhaps you are running out of topics so desperately try to find something to write about, as sad as this choice may be)-here is an idea: perhaps it may be a great idea to consider spending your time researching and posting ALTERNATIVES to the Komen and other top heavy foundations. In this manner, your article and information would helpful to the cause rather than trying to dissuade others from what is actually raising awareness.

  • Hi Vanessa. Let’s clear a few things up:

    1) I ***do*** recommend supporting a very specific organization in the very first bullet point at the end of the article: The Breast Cancer Research foundation. They have much stronger ratings than some of the more mainstream organizations in terms of where their money goes. Once again, here is the link: https://www.bcrfcure.org/

    2) At no point do I say that we should not give this subject attention. To the contrary, I argue that it is crucial we search for a cure. My argument is instead that we should be conscientious of how we do so.

    3) This is directly speaking to brands, urging them to practice their philanthropy in a way that respects those suffering and those who have survived while directly contributing to the cause through channels where they will have the greatest impact instead of trying to profit off of another’s pain.

    Hope that addresses your confusion on this note. All the best.

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