KFC's Pink Bucket Breast Cancer Campaign: Critics Have It Wrong

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From April 5 to May 30 of this year, fast-food chain KFC (YUM) is conducting "Buckets for the Cure," a national campaign to raise money for breast cancer and increase awareness of the disease. Although the program has already generated over $2.3 million in donations, KFC and its partner, Susan G. Komen for the Cure, have both drawn sharp criticism from numerous media outlets and breast cancer advocacy groups. In this case, although the critics raise some valid points, they're clearly missing the biggest point: KFC's pink bucket campaign is doing far more good than evil.

As part of its promotion, KFC created a pink fried chicken bucket that's printed with the names of breast cancer survivors and victims. For each special bucket it sells, the chain promises to donate 50 cents to Komen. In fact, according to the fine print on KFC's website, the company is paying the charity up-front for the buckets, purchasing more as needed.

Some newspapers, including The Washington Post, have argued that this structure lets consumers off the hook. After all, if KFC has already given the money to the Komen foundation, customer purchases are unimportant. KFC spokesman Rick Maynard disagrees, pointing out that, while customer purchases have an indirect effect, they still push the needle: "If customers don't buy the buckets, then our operators won't need to buy any more," he explains. Thus, more customer purchases translate into more franchisee purchases, which translate into more donations for breast cancer awareness.

The Post's critique is only one angle in a multipronged attack: The program's other detractors have excoriated KFC for everything from promoting animal cruelty to exploiting breast cancer. The biggest attacks have focused on the apparent disconnect between KFC's breast cancer initiative and its high-fat, high-carbohydrate food. While several media outlets have chastised the chain for working to promote breast cancer awareness while selling a less-than-healthy product, Breast Cancer Action -- a group that bills itself as "the watchdogs of the breast cancer movement" -- has gone a step further, accusing KFC of "pinkwashing," which it says occurs "when a company purports to care about breast cancer by promoting a pink-ribboned product, but manufactures products that are linked to the disease."

From Drumsticks to Obesity to Cancer?

The purported linkage between KFC and breast cancer breaks down like this: KFC causes obesity, and obesity increases one's risk of breast cancer. Thus, KFC causes breast cancer. On the surface, this argument has a certain skewed logic. After all, a diet rich in fried chicken would likely lead to obesity, especially in the absence of sufficient exercise and other more healthy fare. Moreover, a 2003 study published by the Journal of the National Cancer Institute showed that obesity is linked to breast cancer, especially for postmenopausal women. Thus, if a woman were to eat large amounts of fried chicken -- particularly if she had other risk factors -- she might increase her chance of contracting breast cancer.

It's also worth noting that KFC recently introduced the instantly infamous "Double Down," a breadless sandwich comprising two deep-fried chicken breasts, two pieces of bacon, two pieces of cheese and a mayonnaise-based sauce. At 540 calories, 32 grams of fat and almost 1,400 mg of sodium, it's practically an advertisement for arteriosclerosis and high blood pressure.

But -- Double Down notwithstanding -- the argument that KFC equals breast cancer is tenuous at best. It seems to assume a slippery slope in which a deep-fried drumstick in a pink bucket becomes the gateway drug that leads the consumer to a KFC addiction and subsequent obesity.

Furthermore, Breast Cancer Action's attack also ignores KFC's lower-fat options: As Maynard notes, the company also "sells more nonfried chicken than any other fast-food restaurant in the country." Two pieces of its grilled dark-meat chicken with mashed potatoes and green beans, for example, contain 370 calories. This option, incidentally, could also be purchased as part of the pink bucket campaign.

Komen's Largest Single Donation

KFC's partner in the promotion, Susan G. Komen for the Cure, has also been condemned. Critics argue that the charity is endangering women or diluting its brand by associating with KFC. The world's largest breast cancer nonprofit, Komen has raised over $1.5 billion since its inception. It has received Charity Navigator's highest rating and is one of the country's most trusted nonprofits. At a projected $8.5 million, the pink bucket program would produce the largest single donation ever given to Komen. Perhaps more important, Komen representative Andrea Raider notes that the program is increasing breast cancer awareness in areas that Komen doesn't currently serve.

When asked why KFC chose breast cancer treatment and awareness as a cause, Maynard points out that "Mother's Day is one of our busiest days of the year. This program seemed like a great way to recognize moms and help women." He was less forthcoming when asked if Buckets for the Cure would be repeated next year. Says Maynard: "Right now, we just want to focus on setting a record-breaking donation for breast cancer awareness."

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