Why Pink Stinks: The Backlash Against Breast Cancer Awareness Month


This post was previously published on LinkedIn in October 2015.

As a marketer, I have seen trends come and go in terms of my industry. Things that are hot one minute completely fade into oblivion into the next. But as October has begun, I have seen a backlash that I never thought I would see as openly: One against Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

For as long as I can remember, this month has been explicitly that of the infamous Pink Ribbon, the one that decorates various sundry items in stores. They are on water bottles with cancer-causing BPA, makeup products known to interfere with breast cancer treatments, even foods that patients shouldn’t eat, like buckets of fried chicken.

Since 1991, the pink ribbon has been a rallying point for breast cancer, starting with the Susan G. Komen Foundation distributing them during their famous walks, taking a page from AIDS’ red ribbon. Since then, other ribbons have come up, but the pink ribbon has surpassed them all in the pop culture lexicon, from “Save the ta-tas” t-shits to commemorative coins. The whole idea was that pink was a feminine color, and by displaying the ribbon it was a goodwill call to women that the company or organization that displays it supposedly cares about its non-Y chromosome carrying customers.

I never liked it. You think I would have changed my tune when my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer a year and a half ago. Yet several months back, when I walked alongside her into a fundraiser to speak about her experience to a fundraising event, we were forced into a room strewn with pink balloons, bandanas and all sorts of blush-hued doodads dotted across the white clothed tables. Surrounded by these items, I realized my disdain has gotten worse, and reject the idea of claiming pink because my mom doesn’t have breasts anymore.

I felt society’s pressure to display that pink color from the beginning, right down to the pink Converse sneakers I wore to the hospital the day of my mother’s double mastectomy. However, the hours spend pretending that everything’s okay does not equal a color on the Pantone wheel. It can’t describe how my breath caught in my throat when my mother called me and told me she has cancer. It wasn’t saying every word that I was thinking as doctors bungled her treatment and I would rush to sit in her stark hospital rooms, kissing her balding chemo head. A ribbon doesn’t detail the sacrifices made. There was the fear that you might miss out on the rest of your mother’s life while working late hours for a full-time job, instead opting for a freelancer’s life. And then there was the reluctance of bringing a romantic interest into the picture, because you didn’t want pity from anyone.

I’m not the only one who felt this way. While going through her own cancer treatment, my friend Katie is rebelling against pink as she goes through treatment. She understands where it has stood in the cause marketing movement, how it has become the symbol for a fight against a deadly disease. However, try telling her that as her insurance bills accumulate and she goes through radiation.

I look at breast cancer awareness from two different angles. One is as the daughter of a breast cancer survivor, whose treatment and recovery has occupied my life for a good chunk of time. The other is as a savvy marketer in business who sees how messages are delivered to various audiences, not to mention a former journalist who loves researching and breaking down an argument piece by piece. So that is exactly what I’m going to do.

Breast cancer is not that unusual — it’s the second most common cancer for women after skin cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, over 230,000 women year are diagnosed every year (men are also breast cancer victims, though, although it’s much more rare). Approximately one in eight women will have breast cancer in her lifetime, and there are an estimated 2.8 million breast cancer survivors in this country. The statistics prove the fact that most of us in this country either know someone or are related to someone who has or had breast cancer. That ribbon represents breast cancer awareness, but if you’re not aware of breast cancer by now, you might not be alive.

Meanwhile, the Susan G. Komen Foundation has been under fire in recent years, particularly given its defunding of grants to Planned Parenthood in 2012. Its change to the funding of the one of the leading breast cancer screeners in the country caused the founder and CEO to step down, although it was reported the year after that she received a 64 percent increase in salary. Alongside reports of the lack of money put into actual breast cancer research in the same year (only 20 percent of its money, which 50 percent went to “education,” whatever that means), its amount of donations and respectability both took a dive.

The pink ribbon has become so ubiquitous that it’s almost become invisible, and not necessarily a gesture with any meaning behind it — just look at the NFL and its pink shoes come October. Sure, they “support” breast cancer awareness, but domestic violence is also a vital women’s issue and October is also Domestic Violence Awareness Month, symbolized by a purple ribbon. Yet I don’t see a swarm of purple ribbons anywhere near the NFL commissioner, and when domestic violence happens in their own ranks, it’s swept under the rug. With friends like these, it’s no wonder that that shade of blush, that colored ribbon to end all cause marketing ribbons, has taken a dive in terms of market value.

Of course, the nail in the coffin isn’t only these factors, but it’s the current state of American life. Right now the federal defunding push of Planned Parenthood, where a huge chunk of breast cancer screenings in this country takes place, is a serious issue that might force the government to shut down again. Beyond Planned Parenthood, healthcare in the United States is still a tremendous issue and no closer to being fixed than it was when the Affordable Care Act was passed, with patients accumulating hundreds of thousands of dollars in hospital debt. The current lack of the middle class allows for very little wiggle room if a person is diagnosed with cancer, with some having to resort to GoFundMe campaigns for their treatments. Now try putting a pink ribbon on that. I dare you.

Cause marketing like this can only work so far in the current state of the world. In this information age, this rising younger generation knows more and is far more educated about a variety of issues. This means we can see the holes clearly in simplistic marketing plans — the pink ribbon, after all, is a marketing plan no matter who claims it. Also, when we see our mothers, sisters, aunts, cousins and friends go through cancer, it’s a lot harder to tell us that a pink ribbon will make everything better, because we don’t see it coming for us in our time of need. It doesn’t say anything about the human experience of going through cancer.

What does work is this: My mother standing at a podium and speaking about her breast cancer experience. Talking about my father’s best friend Bill, who he has known for 35 years and is also a breast cancer survivor. Reading Katie’s blogs and hearing her tell her stories. Seeing that it’s people, not just pairs of boobs, going through breast cancer.

Then, in turn, you need to show the ripples in the water from that person — the circles of loved ones, professionals and other people who cancer hits just as hard. It shows how we link to each other as humans. The reason why posts are shared on social media and we rally around causes is because we as humans are moved by the content that talks about it. You can’t move people with a pink water bottle anymore. That way of human life is over.

The stories we tell about our struggles have now become the marketing tools that help us realize the potential we have to experience life as human beings. In turn it allows us to support organizations that go beyond ribbons and corporate sponsors to really help cancer patients, survivors and families — places like the Cancer Support Community and the City of Hope. In turn, it can also go into the vital research that can hopefully prevent the rise of breast cancer in the next generation of women.

The pink ribbon is choking us, preventing us from seeing the real story behind breast cancer, which is what worthy charities need in order to get those fundraising dollars. It’s time to take away the pink and focus on what matters.


Posted on May 24, 2016, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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