Cancer, Lifestyle, Mass Media , , , , ,

Fewer Pink Ribbons in 2013?

It’s Pinktober. Or as the cancer industry would remind us, “October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month!”

As one patient-friend recently called it, we’re nearing the end of what is usually quite a Pepto Bismol colored month. Or to put it differently: what is pinkwashing, and how might it affect us, as people targeted by breast health communication campaigns? ….Let’s explore further.

Originally sponsored by pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca and dedicated to breast cancer awareness/advocacy since the 1980s October is now frequently referred to as “Pinktober,” due to the ubiquity of “pink ribbon” paraphernalia throughout the month. On one hand, these campaigns may variously pump up legions of pink ribbon supporters, who engage in community fundraisers, buying products via corporate sponsorships, and partaking in “awareness” campaigns for breast cancer detection, or raising research funds for “the cure.” Or Pinktober may make many others of those who’ve been through the rigors and poisons of cancer diagnosis need a little dose of anti-nausea medication themselves. A growing movement of women who’ve been through breast cancer are speaking up to say “Pink Ribbons don’t represent me!” These current and former patients take a little more critical look at the health inequities and toxic pollutants they argue “pink ribbon campaigns” may in fact mask over.

However, this year, there seem to be substantially fewer pink ribbons than normal*. Have our readers noticed fewer pink ribbons, too?

– Could it be because of the controversy with Susan G. Komen For the Cure TM and the organization’s proposed defunding of Planned Parenthood last year?

– Could it be because of the increased scrutiny on charitable spending associated with Pink Ribbons?

For example, on the Pink Ribbon (Official) Website, the homepage banner features an articulation of the protocols and regulations of how fundraised dollars will and will not be spent. This is likely a result of increased scrutiny as to how pink ribbon dollars are being spent, following the work of campaigns like Breast Cancer Action.

– Breast Cancer Action has also inspired many with their “Think Before You Pink” campaign, which works to illuminate the stinky ties between companies that sponsor breast cancer awareness campaigns, while at the same time making products which contain chemical components causally linked to breast cancers. This is called pinkwashinga form of “bait and switch” in health communication-related advertising which has come under increasing fire in the last several years.

I am glad to see fewer pink ribbons on the shelves — if they are a part of eclipsing more substantive conversations about why so many people are getting hormonally related and “lifestyle” cancers in the US and in global cosmopolitan centers with rising rates of “life style disease.”

But I am hopeful that consumers are aware of the reasons why pink ribbons are, for many, not an ideal form for communicating support of (breast) cancer patients we care about, or marking our status as family members who’ve lost someone to serious cancer. Perhaps the industry is laying lower this year. But will corporate sponsors and “girly pink” slogans be back — with yet more plans for selling “pink ribbon” products as their main goal in this endeavor for “cancer awareness”?

What do you think? If you’ve never noticed pink ribbon campaigns before, what has your experience of them been so far this year?





*Post-Script: Here’s how my 2013 Pink-quest started….

Several weeks ago, I visited my local “big box” store in search of pink ribbon products (working with metastatic cancer patients as research partners, I am always curious….). In Octobers-past I’ve called in to local Wal-Marts and gotten an extensive, often hilarious report on their multitude of “Pink Ribbon” lines: Pink Doritos, Pink bubble wrap, Pink Ribbon underwear lines, Pink jewelry lines, Pink teddy bears, Pink t-shirts, Pink hand-tools/drills, Pink bakeware, and more. This year, however, in the entire store’s warehouse, I found only 1 dish detergent with a pink ribbon seal, and an NFL-sponsored Pink Ribbon Pepsi case. Asking the store manager what “pink” products were in stock for “breast cancer awareness” this October, she looked at me with confusion, and said, “I don’t know what you mean by ‘pink ribbons’?”

Pink Ribbons are certainly not “gone” from the scene of our consumer landscape, however.


On the way home, I noticed a local real estate agency will have a “PIG OUT FOR CANCER AWARENESS” Barbecue fundraiser, with a 20-foot pig structure calling out “We are Tickled Pink!” (For reference, see the China Study controversy, for linkage between fatty meat consumption rates and hormonal and “lifestyle” related cancers).

The local BMW retailer had its entire building uplit with pink lighting and a banner asking its patrons to “Turn Us Pink,” ostensibly by buying a BMW and donating a portion of proceeds to a pink ribbon charity for breast cancer (For reference, see the controversy over whether car exhaust is a contributor to spiked cancer prevalence in the US and global cosmopolitan centers).

Though many of my research partners have gotten fewer fundraiser emails with “Think Pink” in the tagline this year — or seen fewer t-shirts with “I heart boobies,” and other tags, such as “Save a Life, Grope Your Wife” — we have noticed many companies are still on board with sponsorships “for the cause.” These are sponsorships which allow them to rack up brownie points for “Corporate Philanthropy” and “Social Giving.” As consumers, we still get to decide whether or not to support their “support” by buying into, or avoiding such potentially troublesome health campaigns.

  • kpgarret

    While I personally don't think it is a good thing to see less of the pink ribbons (as I am huge supporter of any cancer initiatives) I would agree that there have been some distinct controversies that have produced some much needed questioning into the over-sell of breast cancer. While breast cancer is extremely devastating, I feel that any cancer can be tragic and to be focusing so much attention to one cause, I worry that people will lose sight of the bigger fight. By putting so much emphasis on just one type of cancer I wonder about the backlash that goes on among the cancer community when a person does not suffer from a more "popular" cancer? Therefore, I ask our readers: Has anyone ever heard of or personally experienced any exclusion in the cancer communities?