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The Very Pink, Very Controversial Business of Breast Cancer Awareness

As a growing number of pink products flood the market, the commodification of breast cancer is coming under increased scrutiny.

You always know when October rolls around—and it's not just because of those much-maligned Pumpkin Spice Lattes. From neighborhood juice bars to massive football stadiums, everyone and everything is decked out in pink for Breast Cancer Awareness Month.


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These days, a simple ribbon won't suffice. There are products in just about every category, the vast majority touting that a percentage of the profits go toward the cause. Tory Burch handbags, Rebecca Taylor tanks, Ebb and Flow candles—that's just the beginning.

As a growing number of pink products flood the market, the commodification of breast cancer is coming under increased scrutiny. The cottage industry is completely unregulated, with a great deal of brands failing to disclose exactly how much money they actually donate—not to mention that charities don't always share where the money goes either. Activists feel the products present misleading images and facts about a disease that has claimed the lives of millions. With some brands even producing items with unsafe ingredients, many argue that BCA products have come to violate consumer ethics, doing more harm than good.

"It's almost like Breast Cancer Awareness Month has become a holiday, a shopping extravaganza."

"It's almost like Breast Cancer Awareness Month has become a holiday, a shopping extravaganza, like Christmas in July," muses Gayle Sulik, a medical sociologist at the University of Albany who wrote a book on the subject titled Pink Ribbon Blues. "It's created a spectacle around the cause which actually diverts attention from the epidemic. The realities of breast cancer—not just the disease, but the treatments, controversies, mammogram screenings—the public at large doesn't know what to make of this stuff because instead, all the awareness is focused on product marketing."

Many point to the pink ribbon as the first symbol of breast cancer commercialization, but its origins have nothing to do with profit-making. A peach ribbon was originally used in the early 1990s by Charlotte Haley, an activist whose mother and sister had battled breast cancer. Haley pinned the ribbons onto cards she sent to the National Cancer Institute, urging them to increase their budget allocation for cancer prevention.

News of her cards eventually made their way to Self editors and Evelyn Lauder, Estée Lauder's senior corporate vice president and a breast cancer survivor who was guest editing an issue of the magazine. Haley felt Lauder's involvement would undermine her grassroots efforts, and declined to work with Self. In 1992, the magazine changed the color and began using pink ribbons as a symbol for breast cancer awareness. Pink ribbons were also placed on Estée Lauder cosmetic items and pretty soon spread to products everywhere.

How Brands Benefit

It's easy to understand why so many brands have jumped on the lucrative BCA bandwagon. The nonprofit sector raises somewhere in the ballpark of $3 billion for breast cancer each year, and there are more than 1,400 breast cancer-related charities to partner with. Factor in a 2010 Cone Cause Evolution study that found that 93% of consumers would switch to cause-supporting brands if given the choice, and the dollar signs start popping.

"It has extended into everything we see," says Larissa Jensen, director and industry analyst of the NPD Group. "On TV, the entire NFL franchise wears pink accessories. Have you seen the pink Dyson vacuum? Bottom line, it's been successful for brands in the past, and where there is success, many more brands and products will follow."

Estée Lauer was the first brand to offer BCA items. Photo: Getty Images

Charities have partnered with brands since the '90s, but the Susan G. Komen organization is credited with spearheading efforts to work with big corporations, helping secure billions for the cause in the process. Komen, who did not respond to emails from Racked, is also the nonprofit that comes under the most scrutiny.

Some of Komen's partnerships have striking contradictions. This year, the breast cancer organization teamed up with Baker Hughes, one of the largest oilfield service companies in the world, to create 1,000 pink drill bits. While Baker Hughes has promised $100,000 to Komen with the "mission to end breast cancer forever," Angela Wall, the communications director of San Francisco-based advocacy group Breast Cancer Action, notes that fracking is believed to expose people to carcinogenic chemicals linked to breast cancer. Komen has been scrutinized for similarly questionable campaigns, like one with KFC in 2010; objectors drew attention to the fact that healthy body weight is the American Cancer Society's first suggestion for cancer prevention. Back in 2011, Komen partnered with perfume manufacturer TPR Holdings on their "Promise Me" fragrance, a product that later came under fire for containing toxic ingredients. Komen also works with Ford Motor Company, even though studies draw a link between traffic-related air pollution and breast cancer.

"This is a disease women are dying from. Meanwhile, there's a huge profit cycle where billions of dollars are made, and we are funding the very items that cause the disease."

"Once you start to peel back the layers, it's quite insidious," Wall says. "This is a disease women are dying from. Meanwhile, there's a huge profit cycle, where billions of dollars are made, and we are funding the very items that cause the disease. If you are going to buy a pink product, at least make sure the product you're buying won't cause breast cancer in the first place."

Beyond the potential health risks of certain pink products, activists maintain that plenty of brands employ unethical business practices when associating with breast cancer awareness. While brands benefit from their connection to feel-good merchandise, they make far more of a profit than they do a donation. Yoplait, for example, is a Komen partner that donates several cents per every redeemable code printed on its yogurt lids. Last year, Yoplait said it would donate up to $1.5 million to Komen. As Wall explains, "You have to compare that donation to the full amount that Yoplait actually made from those yogurts—it's significantly more."

Other brands bend the rules to ride out BCA promotion. In 2009, New Balance told the Boston Globe that, like Yoplait, donations from its "Lace for the Cure" sneakers are capped; after the the cap is reached, New Balance pockets all of the profits and doesn't let customers know that the promotion has ended. A breast cancer awareness collaboration on Ties.com offers pink ribbon ties, but the website confirmed to Racked that 20 percent of profits will go to charity only during the month of October. The ties will remain on the site—breast cancer ribbons and all—the other 11 months of the year, with Ties.com enjoying the full profit.

Some brands ride off breast cancer marketing to promote non-BCA sales as well. Kohl's ran a confusing campaign back in March, in which it offered a coupon that could be used several times, though $1 was donated to Komen only on the first use. The campaign's language also suggested that "while you're shopping, be sure to stop by our Pink Elephant page," pushing product in a way that made it clear breast cancer awareness was not their top priority.

Where the Money Goes

An issue many breast cancer activists have with pink products is the lack of transparency exhibited by brands and charities. According to Sulik's Breast Cancer Consortium organization, some $6 billion total is raised for breast cancer every year between federal funding, nonprofits, and private organizations, while only $1 billion of that is spent on breast cancer research annually.

"Pink products have grown and grown to become their own kind of monster at this point, but there's no way to truly monitor the impact they have nor track where it goes and that's a real problem," Sulik says. "The only thing charities have to register for is a 990 tax form, and that's just not detailed enough."

Photo: Getty Images

Samantha King, a professor of kinesiology and health studies at Canada's Queens University and author of Pink Ribbons, Inc., told Racked she attempted to do research into where the funds were being allocated for her book, but came up dry. The National Film Board of Canada also employed a researcher when King's book was adapted into a documentary in 2011, but the trail of money led to nowhere.

"I've called charity headquarters many times, and they weren't able to tell me where it was going," she says. "The numbers and stats they provide are haphazard, and it's really hard to get concrete information, partly because of secrecy agreements."

Sulik notes that a large percentage of charity budgets are invested in "education" or "awareness," but that items like bracelets, pens, and clothing fall into those buckets. "You can look at the category in terms of deliverables: It might be shirts, it might be bookmarks, it might be brochures," she says. "It's usually things that are easy for the organization to put its logo on, instead of spending money on services transportation or assisting with co-pays. You do see medical service help, but it's very little compared to the awareness category."

Bad Messaging

Those who want to play devil's advocate might stop and wonder: What's so bad about awareness? Isn't getting the message out important, too? Well, part of the problem is the culture of misinformation surrounding pink products.

"People are getting bad information, and I'd rather them get no information than bad information," Sulik says. "There are campaigns that encourage breast exams. They say, 'Feel your boobies!' But breast self-exams have not been found to help find tumors early and are not recommended by the National Cancer Institute or the World Health Organization. Plus, there's a lot of fear juxtaposed with campaign messaging that is confusing and not helpful. Women tend to overestimate their risks. The reality is more women will not get breast cancer, but a lot of women are still afraid."

King adds that scores of campaigns promote the idea of "winning the fight against breast cancer," when in fact, she says, "mortality and incidence rates have not declined."

Then there's the idea that the only way to stop breast cancer is to keep pumping money into the cause. Sulik mentions a recent Komen mailing that read, "We will find the cure—how fast is up to you," which she found to mean "all we need is more money and then we'll do this thing we really haven't done in the last 30 years."

The focus on cash isn't unique to breast cancer, though.

Lacoste's BCA offerings have included pink tees with the brand's signature crocodile. Photo: Getty Images

"There's this idea that to be a good citizen, you must donate, volunteer, fundraise," King adds. "Thirty years ago, it would have been unimaginable that corporations would be competing with each other to attach their name to products. We've created it in that way, we've reconfigured breast cancer, made it a commodity to bring us together so it can be used to sell products. We are socialized to think about raising money in order to be a good citizen. It's a new approach to disease, but there are all kinds of ways to be an activist that don't involve money."

The Road to Real Solutions

Michelle Ruiz, a senior editor at Cosmopolitan, raises money every year for the American Cancer Society's annual Breast Cancer Walk. A close friend of hers is a breast cancer survivor, and Ruiz feels deeply invested in the cause she is supporting.

"My friend really believes in this walk and the American Cancer Society. She says she benefited directly from the program the walk funds," Ruiz says. "The American Cancer Society will drive women to treatments, help them find wigs, do support workshops. This event, for me, is the best I can do. It's a day to come together to celebrate how far survivors have come. They wear sashes, give each other gifts. You see women crying and it really has an effect."

"We are socialized to think about raising money in order to be a good citizen."

Jensen agrees that the events and merchandise surrounding Breast Cancer Awareness Month aren't all bad: "This is about doing good for others, while treating yourself, but it's also about showing support. Many people I know who purchase these BCA products have either battled this type of cancer themselves or know someone who has. It's a way to say, 'This cause is important to me.' BCA is so personal to so many people, and wearing or buying pink in October is like a badge of honor."

Sulik has spoken both to survivors who feel supported by BCA ubiquity and to those who "don't want to leave their house during the month of October because they feel silenced and accosted by all the ribbons."

If activists had it their way, pink products would disappear completely and educated consumers would instead do their due diligence, donating directly to organizations that truly assist and affect change—and that are transparent about where their money goes.

"We don't need any more awareness. Unless you've been living under a rock, everyone already knows about breast cancer," Wall says. "What we need is to do something concrete, like look into whether the FDA is approving pharmaceuticals that are harmful to women, or find money treatment plans for those that are sick, or get government regulations on chemicals in beauty products. There are a lot of things that need to be addressed and empty awareness campaigns won't stop women from getting sick."

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