In 1996, champion cyclist Lance Armstrong was told he had cancer in his testicles, abdomen, lungs and brain. Undeterred, the next year he launched his Lance Armstrong Foundation, dedicated to combat the disease, and two years after that, the athlete licked his diagnosis by winning the Tour de France, qualifying him as a medical and athletic demigod. In the summer of 2004, Armstrong's Foundation capitalized on his inspirational reputation by unveiling a brilliant fund-raising tactic: stretchy yellow wristbands that, at $1 a loop, benefited cancer research and support.
John Kerry and George Bush wore them on the campaign trail, accompanied by countless celebrities, and by 2005, USA Today was reporting that 50 million of the things, or one for every six Americans, were expected to be sold, exceeding Armstrong's initial hopes to raise $25 million for his cause.
Half a decade later, it's unsurprising that the canary-yellow wristband took off so quickly. Who doesn't want to be associated with a winner? Who doesn't think cancer sucks?
They're wristbands, thank you very much, because bracelet is just feminine enough to scare off the macho types. To underscore the vitality of the enterprise, Nike did much of the heavy lifting in manufacturing and selling the silicone bands, which are yellow because that's the color that the lead cyclist wears on the Tour de France. The promotional scheme wasn't purely grassroots. It was hatched by Wieden+Kennedy, Nike's sports-savvy ad agency, which also unleashed seminal campaigns for ESPN, Air Jordan, and those creepy ads featuring sassy puppet Li'l Penny. (Yes, you were had, but it was for a good cause.)
Wearing a Livestrong wristband didn't just say that you wanted to end cancer's miseries. It also said something about the wearer's athleticism, and that's sexy. Unlike breast cancer ribbons, which must pierce holes in clothing to be worn and look strange on casual ensembles, the rubber wristband is an improved, modern iteration of awareness declaration. The waterproof symbol doesn't ruin clothing, and it can be worn on a sweaty jog.
Pretty soon, kids across the Western world were in a frenzy to slip on colored awareness wristbands in an effort to label their concerns for all to see, and when the supply ran short, counterfeiters stepped in to skim the cream off the fad. Colors were multiplying at such a rate that it was hard to tell which charities were being promoted, with no standardized code to make sense of everything.
Nelson Mandela gave out white ones to show a resolve to end world poverty. One man's red bracelet meant AIDS awareness, while another meant "hope, courage, bravery, endurance." Schools banned them out of fear that kids were using them as a sort of code to express their sexual tastes, and others banned them because their proliferation violated uniform policies.
Pretty soon, the value of the statement became hopelessly diluted and silicone wristbands, having quickly reached a saturation point, began to disappear on all but the trend-impaired. That may be a victory for fashion, but it's not necessarily one for philanthropy, because cancer still isn't cured.