The idea of associating pink with the battle against breast cancer has unquestionably worked as a marketing tool. But how do you sort legitimate support for the cause from shameless product marketing when both use the same symbol?
Experts say even the most questionable campaigns help heighten awareness of the disease, but that doesn't mean what they're doing is OK. Among those, fast food producers, alcohol companies and car manufacturers are especially culpable, because their products directly increase the risk of developing cancer.
But they are also among the most visible supporters of the cause, slapping pink ribbons on everything from fried chicken to vodka to special edition Ford Mustang vehicles -- a practice known as "pinkwashing."
"Once you start getting at what can be done to prevent breast cancer in the first place, that's when the campaign gets really serious. Special interests get threatened and scream bloody murder," said Michele Simon, director of research and policy at the Marin Institute, a nonprofit that keeps tabs on the alcohol industry. "When [charities] start muddying their message, they're really undermining it by promoting it on alcohol."
Alcohol manufacturers that use breast cancer to sell liquor include Chambord, which urges users to "pink your drink", Skyy Vodka, which sells a pink martini on Delta flights, California's Marin Brewing Company, which sponsors a BreastFest, and the Sweetwater Brewery in Atlanta, which organizes a fundraising event dubbed Beer 4 Boobs.
While the messages might look distasteful to some, the companies -- and even some charities that back such dubious marketing -- will tell you they are doing whatever it takes to raise money for awareness. But awareness alone doesn't necessarily advance the search for a cure. Critics say the idea that medicine is moving closer to finding a cure for breast cancer is an illusion, so long as fundraising efforts focus on a slogan rather than on real research and treatment.
"Awareness is such a silly word. It's meaningless and it gets thrown around the same way as 'moderation,'" said Simon. "We're pretty aware already."
Yoplait, the yogurt company owned by General Mills, didn't think so. It made news for cashing in on "awareness" and for misleading uses of the pink ribbon in 2008, when it promised to give up to $1.5 million to the Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the leading breast cancer charity in the world, by donating 10 cents for each pink yogurt lid returned to the company.
Tagged with the snappy message "Save Lids to Save Lives," the campaign spurred a sales bonanza and the company reportedly received more than 15 million lids, the number needed to reach its maximum contribution. After subtracting the donations, which yielded $5.9 million, Yoplait saw a 14% jump in sales. Still, to ensure their 10 cents went to the cause, consumers had to physically mail in the lids and also pay for postage, an investigation by the watchdog group Breast Cancer Action found.
The campaign was doubly flawed because it pinkwashed the yogurt. Until the BCA called on General Mills to "put a lid on it," the yogurt was made with rBGH, a growth hormone linked to breast cancer, the group reported.
Ford also pinkwashed a number of its cars in 2008, when it pledged to donate $250 per sale to the Komen foundation. To reach its cap of $500,000, it had to sell at least 2,000 of the 2,500 special-edition Warriors in Pink Mustangs it made that year. When it continued the program the following year, the company's sales went up 62%, offsetting a 32% drop in sales in 2008.
And taking cause-related marketing to an even higher level, American Airlines teamed up with the Komen foundation, also in 2008, pledging to donate $8 million over eight years. The campaign, which includes pink-decorated aircraft, jetways, baggage claims and employees, was launched the same year the airline flirted with bankruptcy. By July of 2010, American's performance was reportedly a $440 million improvement over the first quarter of the year, and the first operating profit since the end of 2007.
Commenting on the spate of alliances, Sandra Miniutti, vice president of marketing for Charity Navigator, said it is ultimately up to nonprofits to decide what kind of fundraising contributes most to the fight against breast cancer. "I think there are a lot of charities in this space that, despite their best intentions, get involved in partnerships that don't benefit them as much as they should."
Only in this case, the Komen foundation has a winning strategy of its own. The charity, which invented the phrase "For the Cure," launched a legal battle last August against dozens of other nonprofits and companies for using the word combination in their advertising. It has filed more than 100 trademark applications for terms that include "For the Cure" and has also warned nonprofits against using the color pink.
"We've become so used to seeing these ribbons that they've lost meaning. People are walking around with ribbons without even realizing what it means," said medical sociologist Gayle A. Sulik, who argues in her new book Pink Ribbon Blues: How Breast Cancer Culture Undermines Women's Health that the sentimental tokens have not had a measurable effect on improving patients' condition.
Instead, what the ribbons achieve is the visual equivalent of the industry's favorite buzzword -- "awareness" -- by presenting the idea that everybody is at risk, that breast cancer is going to strike at any time, and that all anybody can do is "buy more stuff."
"Hair pins, Barbie dolls, trinkets -- you have this idea that consumption is going to solve the breast cancer problem. But there are a lot of other things that are necessary to direct the research, and you're not going to find it on yogurt lids," Sulik told Consumer Ally.
Cure for cancer stalls, but pink puts companies in the black