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Rethinking the Pink Ribbon

Dr. Samantha King, author of Pink Ribbons Inc.: Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy, spoke about the commercialization of breast cancer at the Centretown Community Health Centre last week.

pinkribbonShe noted that it wasn’t so long ago that breast cancer carried considerable stigma. Efforts to bring the disease out into the open were highly successful, and the stigma soon gave way to the disease becoming the darling of marketers, who now compete to have their products associated with the pink ribbon campaign.

Even though heart disease and lung cancer are much more prolific killers of Canadian women, breast cancer benefits from not having its causes fully understood. There’s very little victim-blaming in breast cancer, since we don’t know what causes it. Unlike lung cancer and heart disease patients, women with breast cancer are seen as ‘innocent.’

In recent years, women with breast cancer have acquired – or had foisted upon them – a positive image of ‘survivorship.’

As Dr. King pointed out, the cheerfulness of breast cancer culture can be very alienating for those women who either can’t afford to participate in it or who are dying (the campaign does not acknowledge death), or for those who don’t identify with the Pink Ribbon image of a woman with breast cancer, which is generally white, young, well-groomed and upbeat.

Not only that, but the Pink Ribbon Campaign doesn’t raise as much money as you might think once overhead is factored in, and it hasn’t had an impact on breast cancer rates or mortality rates. While it does raise awareness, perhaps it’s only a very superficial and not quite accurate awareness.

Collectively we donate a lot of money to the Pink Ribbon campaign, and it makes us feel good but do we really get good value for it? Are the marketers deceiving us? Is our money going where it’s most needed? What’s most needed, according to Dr. King, is more research, better breast cancer treatments, and more emphasis on prevention (some products are directly linked to breast cancer – do we know what they are? Some of them are products that actually sport the Pink Ribbon logo See Breast Cancer Action for more info.).

I’d never thought about any of this until I heard Samantha King speak. I’ve run in a couple of races to end breast cancer myself, and I’ve sponsored other women who were running in them. I’ve always associated the Pink Ribbon with positive things, such as supporting women with breast cancer, looking for a cure for breast cancer, etc. I’ve always been touched by the imagery and the whole survivorship thing, and I’ve never questioned any of it until now.

It was quite the eye-opener for me.

17 comments to Rethinking the Pink Ribbon

  • Julia

    Very interesting to see this from a different perspective. Especially the innocent victim p.o.v. I never thought of it that way before. But if the pink ribbon campaign contributed to the wonderful support I have got over the last 8 months, I am all for it! But I often do wonder about the overhead of some charities.

  • Manon

    Most enlightning. I agree that this type of cancer has been totally exploited by companies who saw the opportunity to sell their products by promoting their “contribution” to the fight against this much-publicized cancer. The emphasis on prevention is paramount, but so is education: my mother died of breast cancer 4 years ago. She used HRT products for many years, she was a smoker all her life, she did not exercise regularly. She was in total shock when she was diagnosed. She had not heard of prevention and she believed to the end her smoking had nothing to do with her illness.

  • Em

    I remember talking about this issue (and the whole “Cancer Industry”) in one of my sociology classes in my undergrad. It really made me think twice about how the corporations latch on to this stuff. I’m all for awareness, but not like this. I hate most “ribbon” campaigns though.
    I also have trouble with the highly sexualized ads for breast cancer screening and awareness – usually a young, white, perky topless woman holding her breasts or something. It is hardly representative of the realities of the disease, and that’s not very helpful in the long run.

  • XUP

    HA! I did a major paper on this for my PR course. The whole pink ribbon campaign was started by a pharmaceutical company who manufacture breast cancer drugs, build mammography machines and, coincidentally have or had interests in chemical companies that were sanctioned for spewing carcinogens into the environment. Most of the money collected goes back into the campaign – PR for drugs, mammography, etc., with the rest going to more drug research. Nevermind how they sell the pink ribbon brand to every product from jello to cars (where 3 cents of every car you buy goes to breast cancer research). If you want to help this cause there are many fine organizations that research and promote breast cancer prevention and others that assist with living with and dying from breast cancer. The moral of the story is do your homework before supporting whichever organization has the glossiest campaigns or can tear at your heartstrings the hardest. All that gloss and tearing costs.

  • Debbie

    While I agree with everything said here, there are some positives associated with pink ribbon campaigns. As a RE/MAX agent, I have been involved in the “Sold on a Cure” campaign since its inception. As agents, we have the option of donating a portion of our commissions to Breast Cancer Research and every spring we hold a community Garage Sale that all the proceeds go to research. It is more than the three cents that XUP talks of, much more. At $100/closing, my own contributions end up being more than $3,000 per year. This is not an amount that I would normally just write a cheque for when the volunteers show up at the door.

    I resent the companies that jump on the bandwagon, charging a premium for their goods and services, just so that they can say they are part of the “Pink Ribbon” campaign too. Maybe, all of these companies should be obligated to say, $1 of each sale goes to…etc.

  • Nat

    More and more research is turning cancer into a chronic disease more akin to the likes of AIDS or diabetes. But what’s interesting is if you ask people they assume woman are dying of breast cancer. As you note, statistically breast isn’t the biggest killer of women. So why aren’t the other cancers doing so well, for sure, lung cancer for instance is seen as a “preventable cancer”. But the other things is that it doesn’t have a legion of survivors to mobilize and seek better treatment. (Top five most fatal cancers as per Cancer Care Ontario: Brain, Stomach, Liver.)

  • For more interesting cancer-related reading, this is a great article called
    Cancerland by Barbara Ehrenreich. My favourite part of the article
    is here:
    “Death is as “natural” as anything gets, and the body has always seemed to me like a retarded Siamese twin dragging along behind me, an hysteric really, dangerously overreacting, in my case, to everyday allergens and minute ingestions of sugar.”

  • Arden

    What gets me about so many of the pink ribbon items is that the money rarely goes to breast cancer RESEARCH, instead if you listen or read carefully you’ll find many go into breast cancer AWARENESS, which is esentially funding another bloated campaign.

    Say nothing of all the neglected diseases out there that won’t kill you, but will make you suffer terribly for the next 20, 40, or 70 years.

  • BuddyRich

    This pink ribbon stuff reminds me of the product (RED) stuff. IIRC, the company running the RED campaign itself is not even a non-profit and is pretty secretive to the specifics of where its money goes.

    If I was an entrepreneurial sort, I’d claim a colour and cause fast, and start “raising” awareness for it.

    Pink and Red are gone, yellow is for our troops… No one got the memo on Purple, a whole slew of causes use it:

    similarly with orange which seem to be associated with mainly human rights causes (and Kidney Cancer)

    Green, Green is a movement unto itself at the moment, so green is out.

    Even the non-colours are used, after all white is for peace, and black is used as a symbol of mourning after death…

    Not that many colors left.

  • Carmen

    At one point, I sponsored my SIL who was walking for breast cancer in Winnipeg. On the website we were invited to write a small blurb along with our donation amount. I wrote: “In memory of Ahneena.” Yep, you guessed it, the comment was deleted.

  • grace

    The commodification of disease truly distresses me and I try not to purchase items that may contribute to disease –pollution, food additives, etc. etc. This is much as I used to boycott the Canadian Cancer Society’s kick-off breakfast before fruit and bran muffins were subbed in for stacks of cured meat. As with all things, we have to be wise ‘consumers’.

  • Julia

    Thanks for that link to Breast Cancer Action. I joined them back in August when they gave the pre-op seminar and I didn’t know they were doing stuff like this (debunking) too.

  • Take a look at this review of Cancer Activism: Gender, media and public policy.

    The thing that gets me about all this is that some diseases get more attention than others. Prostate cancer research receives a little over half of the funding (in the US) that breast cancer research receives, even though more men get hit by the disease than folks who get breast cancer (for numbers, see my post). Why? Likely due to the impact of advocacy groups.

    This isn’t necessarily bad (until you start considering that diseases crippling the developing world don’t get anywhere close to the level of funding that breast/prostate cancer get), but it is interesting: our society has failed miserably in resource allocations, and, for the most part, we don’t even realize it.

  • How nasty that the donation in memory of comment never saw the light at the cancer site.

    The pink campaign strikes me as being like hospital lotteries. People want to contribute but get something back but to donate money to research directly saves a lot of song and dance. It raises awareness just like the does but that idea of “not quite accurate awareness” is true. It habituates to the words, de-taboos, de-hysterics but doesn’t demystify into understanding. And the pink denotes women while overlooking that males can get breast cancer too.

    It’s made into something popular to support. Is it the best response?

  • Long ago there was an outcry over the company collecting donations for the humane society of Ottawa-Carleton. During their campaigns the majority of funds coming in went directly to the firm soliciting donations. It aggravated me and since then I’ve only made direct donations or contributed to friends who have entered events and asked me to sponsor them.

    If a commercial business puts a percentage of their sales of a specific product, or even their whole product/service line towards a cause I’m not at all insulted. I don’t choose to purchase products based on who they donate to or even if they donate to a specific cause. The product has to stand on it’s own merit. However, I also think it should be on the shoulders of the charity to ensure that they there name is only used in connection with something they sanction and believe in.

    So IMHO it’s caveat emptor/buyer beware whether it’s a business, a charity, even a government organization (take for example MPAC).


  • I have been annoyed with this campaign for a long time, and I do not support it. I was shut down a few times for asking where the information on breasfeeding as prevention was featured in their literature.