If you don’t know much about the history of the pink ribbon, or the massive cause marketing facets it has, then you need to watch this film.
The fight against breast cancer has been depoliticised. Pushes from pharma companies to produce a “cure”, combined with corporate links with fundraising campaigns, have fundamentally shifted the debate and public awareness of the disease.
History of the ribbon: corporate appropriation
The Guardian covered this in their recent article Cancer’s not pink:
The pink ribbon was originally orange. Conceived in 1990 by Charlotte Haley, a 68-year-old American, it was a grassroots protest against the fact that only 5% of the US National Cancer Institute’s budget was going towards cancer prevention.
When Estée Lauder asked to use the logo for a breast-cancer awareness campaign, Haley wanted nothing to do with it, saying she had no wish for them to use the ribbon as she felt it was too commercial. So the company changed the colour to pink, because research identified it as the most non-threatening, soothing colour – everything a cancer diagnosis isn’t.
Estee Lauder threatened Charlotte with their vast squad of lawyers, and then just evaded the legalities by slightly changing the colour.
From the start, a symbol tainted by corporate appropriation.
Cause marketing: framing it nice
Charities like Susan G Komen for the Cure (recently famous for their decision to not back Planned Parenthood) are largely responsible for the links between breast cancer fundraising and corporate cause marketing i.e. ‘buy this and part of the profits go to a good cause’.
The bottom line is that these companies only enter these partnerships because they are lucrative.
To be an effective sales tool, breast cancer needs to be portrayed as beatable. Positivity and reassurance mean that the more you buy, the more you’re helping is the dominant philosophy.
An off-shoot problem is that the focus on positivity is that it:
- creates a frame of ‘the more I fight the more likely I am to succeed’, which promotes victim-blaming when it fails e.g. “oh you should have eaten more green veg”;
- implies all breast cancer is always treatable and beatable;
- softens something ugly and difficult, and invalidates the very valid feelings of anger people have.
This sanitising from corporate links took the teeth out of the growing movement pushing for prevention rather than a “cure”, and shifted focus from preventative options.
“It’s not a conspiracy, it’s business as usual”
Popular focus on the disease being beatable on one level encourages the quick fix self-help ideas you hear in the papers: “eat more fruit and veg”, “do more exercise”, etc.
What most people don’t know is that only 20-30% of breast cancer is caused by known risk factors. However, publicising this would undermining the public perception of the disease being manageable, and thus undermine the potential profits from cause marketing.
This focus on a cure encourages an atmosphere of medicalisation, even when that’s not necessarily beneficial for patients. 85% of funding goes towards cures in the form of pills that may only increase life expectancy by a small amount. Only 15% goes towards prevention of the disease - a far less lucrative market.
Of the money going to prevention, only a third is going towards investigating environmental causes for breast cancer. Another problem with corporate links: cause-marketing companies are ‘helping the cause’ whilst profiting from products that cause breast cancer.
A few quick examples: the estrogenic plastics used in Ford’s manufacturing; the rBGH growth hormone in dairy products (Yoplait); the fact that only 20% of ingredients in cosmetics have had any safety checks (Estee Lauder, Revlon). All these companies engage in breast cancer cause marketing.
The sad fact is that this is an inherent problem with corporate engagement in fundraising.
Not even touched on the fact that most research studies focus on white middle class women because those are the ones with buying power for cause-marketing products, or the globalisation of pinkwashing (using the social licence from breast cancer campaigning to operate in places like the middle east by the US after Iraq war).
Film review for Pink Ribbons Inc.
Pink Ribbons Inc. by Dr Susan Love is the book the film is based on
Welcome to Cancerland, an article by Barbara Ehrenreich
Breast Cancer Action do some great work in the US e.g. the Think Before You Pink campaign
big shout-out to Human Rights Watch for screening the film!
This is a good and important subject.
I’m not a big fan of the commercialization of breast cancer research.
I do want to point out one thing though. Breast Cancer went from being one of the most devastating forms of cancer to one of the most curable largely because of the fundraising and publicity brought to this particular form of cancer. Here’s a quick look at the improved survival rates
Other kinds of cancer, such as Ovarian cancer, have not improved so significantly. There hasn’t been a new drug for Ovarian in something like 15 years.
All the fundraising and activism does have an effect, a serious one. So I’m a little uncomfortable with some of the things quoted above about too much funding going to “cures in the form of pills”. People, those pills are the reason that breast cancer is a survivable disease. Pills like Tamoxifen and Herceptin allow people with the worst forms of breast cancer who might have been given 3-4 months to live to go on living their life for many more months, years, even a decade after that. To the person who now gets to see their 40th birthday or watch their kid graduate high school, that’s a big fucking deal. Actually complaining about that smacks of anti-medical paranoia that I’m really wary of right now.
Here’s the real problem: the whole reason we need fundraising and activism is that the government does not provide enough funding for medical research. If we had the funding structure to do the research that’s really needed for ALL forms of cancer, we wouldn’t need individual funding efforts like Susan Komen with all of the attendant problems that leaving research to corporations and semi-shady foundations brings.
Other than that I fully agree with the critiques about cause marketing and linking products to breast cancer fundraising.