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October 11, 2010 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

The politics of pink

As per most internet memes, this one was first brought to my attention on Facebook. By a number of my friends tinting their profile pics, I was reminded of that upcoming liberal-guilt assuager—Breast Cancer Awareness month. This irked me some, and not just because of the horrendous shade of pink.

My friends were subscribing to a phenomenon known as ‘pinkwashing’—when corporations give their product lines a rosy hue for the purpose that oft-spoken notion of breast cancer awareness.

Perhaps inadvertently, everyone jumping on this particular social media bandwagon was also supporting Canadian Telecommunications giant, TELUS. However, unlike other pinkwashing campaigns, my friends didn’t have to spend anything to get their dose of feel-good factor.

I don’t mean to undermine the seriousness of the disease or belittle the sufferers or survivors, families, communities, nurses, doctors, researchers and generally all the amazing people that do battle with breast cancer on a daily basis. Rather, cynicism should be encouraged of companies so focused on profit making that they are willing to capitalise on the suffering of others under the pretence of philanthropy.

You have to hand it to TELUS—it’s a pretty effective marketing strategy. For the cost of a few hundred thousand Canadian dollars (essentially nothing in the world of telecommunications advertising), every subscriber becomes a mini-billboard for their ‘Product/Service’. If the average Facebook user has 130 friends, when the campaign hits the 200,000 fans mark, at least 26 million ‘hits’ of the TELUS viral campaign are spread around the world’s most popular social media site. So far, TELUS has donated $100,000 to ‘the cause’ and have pledged to double that if 500,000 Facebook users ‘like’ them (read: if their publicity grows to 65 million advertising platforms).

But where is the harm in TELUS gaining massive publicity from a very clever reading of how viral social media operates? Women in rural British Columbia get a few digital mammogram machines, awareness is raised. Your friends see that you are a charitable soul. And all you have to do is undergo a gimmicky photo change. So what if corporate giants also profit in the process? Surely it’s win-win for everybody?

For those who aren’t particularly aware of charitable enterprises, surely ‘pinking’ a profile picture would be
better than nothing? But where someone would have donated money or time, but for the fact they have already discharged their guilt by subscribing to this trend, then potentially there is a loser in this ‘win-win’ arrangement.

To highlight the low accountability of such phenomena, TELUS has changed their offer. Initially they promised to donate a dollar for every user, however, they’ve seemingly downgraded their donation to just forty cents for everyone who gives them the ‘thumbs up’. Perhaps they did not foresee how global (and therefore how presently irrelevant to them) this campaign would become. The TELUS website is unclear about exactly how much money they are donating, or which breast cancer charities are gaining from this promotion.

I sincerely hope some Canadian breast cancer patients do see tangible benefits of this fundraiser, but this draws attention to the fact that this campaign doesn’t actually offer much significance to the average New Zealand Facebooker. Sure, that vague concept of ‘awareness’ gets bandied about, but if ‘making a difference’ was what mattered, surely it would be better achieved in one’s own community?

New Zealand equivalents of ‘pinkwashing’ are everywhere. Many companies have launched a pink product line this October, or affixed their brand to pink jewellery, badges, gadgets and other such purchasable paraphenalia.

Certainly, money raised for a good cause is money raised for a good cause.

Surgeon John Harmen, the founding trustee of the Breast Cancer Research Trust (BCRT), can vouch for that.
He sees about one in five of his patients die, usually after just enough time to get to know them well (three to five years). He donates time and money into research for a cure. By contributing to the wider knowledge, the hope is that eventually it can lead to a cure. And, as he quipped, he does have a daughter.

Therein lies the heart of where the good-will stems from. The stats aren’t pretty. One in nine New Zealand
women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime. More than 650 women will die of it this year. And many thousands more New Zealanders will be affected, through watching a loved one suffer.

Harmen believes the notion of a cure is not just “pie in the sky”. Rather, given the huge research teams around the world working towards this, it is a realisable goal in the next twenty years. But it’s a matter of time. And money.

We’re talking big bucks. The BCRT raised over $6.5 million in six years, entirely through donation, most of
which has gone to various research projects. The Breast Cancer Foundation (BCF) raised $1.4 million last October alone, although their money also goes to buying equipment for the public healthcare sector, and advertising about breast cancer.

The money has to come from somewhere. Problematically, the figures on just how much of the money raised by a charity is raised by corporate sponsorship are not widely publicised. Representatives at Unilever—the company behind Dove beauty products—were polite, but unable to give information about ‘internal’ matters. Rodney Wayne Hairdressers were more forthcoming: general manager Julie Evans says they have raised $90,000 this year, through in-store ‘team challenges’ from a proportion of sales of L’Oreal products. Evans says the reasons for supporting breast cancer were to help a cause “close to our own hearts”, and because 80 per cent of their customers are female.

Obviously, all public altruism has some degree of self-interest. Such philanthropy can be expected to boost
the bottom line of companies through profit increases—consumers would rather support a company that helps a good cause in some way. Furthermore, there is a flow-on benefit of being painted in a shining light in the eyes of consumers.

So maybe the ends should justify the means? However, it’s the disproportionate gains made by the big firms as opposed to the deserving organisations that smacks of corporate greed. Campbell’s Soup doubled its sales in a month by turning its iconic red and white cans pink. In the States, KFC tried to launch a pink-bucket campaign, although this was scrapped after public protests. These international examples are extreme, but closer to home, the range of companies supporting breast cancer include everything from L’Oreal and Avon to food products like TimTams, and the slightly more absurd Firestone Tyres and Viva Paper Towels.

Given the often tenuous links between the ‘pinkwashed’ product and the breast cancer charity, one should question why breast cancer is so commonly chosen as the hot charity that companies wish to support.

Primarily, marketability. It’s cute; it’s pink. That colour synonymous with things pretty and youthful. It’s recognisable and it conforms to easily identifiable gender norms. Girls can embrace all things girly; boys can appear in touch with their sensitive side. Added bonus: traces of sex appeal—everyone gets general licence to think about boobs more. More winning for everyone.

Secondly, the idea of a ‘glamorous charity’ combines two elements of human nature—self-interest and the
bandwagon effect. Just like people want to publicise their philanthropy, à la the Facebook phenomena, so too with corporate industries. And no organisation wants to appear not in support. An American 2004 survey showed 91 per cent of consumers have a more positive image of a company when it supports a cause. And in the words of CNN’s Ted Turner “the more good I do, the money has come in”.

What does this lofty goal of ‘awareness’ mean? Given that one month of the year is devoted to raising said
awareness, no one should have any right to claim they do not know what it is. The disconnect here is that just because people are aware of breast cancer, does not mean that everyone eligible is getting themselves off to the radiographers for a mammogram, or hassling the women in their lives to do so.

And while breast cancer awareness is important, when this is done at the expense of other worthy causes, then we have a problem.

Harman concedes that other cancer charities don’t get enough publicity, funding or corporate sponsorship. Lung cancer and bowel cancer each lead to double the number of deaths in New Zealand. Bowel cancer is similarly aided by early detection as breast cancer—it is curable in 70 per cent of people if caught at an early stage. Perhaps people feel entitled to not support these to the same degree because they are more ‘preventable’ cancers than breast cancer. Or, more likely, a bowel-cancer-coloured KFC bucket would
hardly boost profitability in a corporate do-good bid to raise awareness of bowel cancer.

Prostate cancer is likely set to become something of a hot potato as its campaigners vie for more awareness and donation dollars. Some promoters have questioned the imbalances in recognition of this exclusively male disease. But why have we reached a stage where the particular gender a disease attacks matters? Why is it a battleground to fight for which type of cancer charity is more ‘deserving’?

If these comparisons seem irrelevant, or suggest that people view breast cancer as more serious than any other kind of cancer, remember that in an era of information overload, where we direct our awareness (and money) does matter. The causes upon which we bestow our precious attention may ultimately blind us to the many other worthy charities needing our attention too. Breast cancer awareness is not much use if it is ovarian or bowel or prostate cancer that inevitably kills you or someone you love.

But still, surely no harm is actually done by such corporate sponsorship? Well, to take the line propounded by Samantha King in her book, Pink Ribbon, Inc: under the guise of altruism, corporations can turn their “formidable promotion machines on the curing of the disease, while dwarfing public health prevention efforts—stifling calls for investigation into why and how breast cancer affects such a vast number of people”. Essentially, the focus on a cure blinds people to causes of breast cancer. However, given research suggests breast cancer is largely caused by unavoidable risk factors, chiefly, being female and over 40, this is one kettle of fish I am not prepared to touch.

Ultimately, it’s hardly popular to criticise those who do ‘good’. Breast cancer organisations need support, usually in the form of money. Awareness should be raised, and research should be carried out. In an ideal world, this wouldn’t be done at the expense of other worthy causes. I concede my own feebleness in this regard. I can never hope to give as much to the countless number of deserving causes as corporate sponsors can. However, corporate sponsorship comes from consumers ultimately providing the business with more than they are providing to the cause. Such sponsorship should never just be blindly accepted and is best approached with a degree of cynicism.

So, I urge people to ‘think before they pink’—to question what they get in return for their good deeds, and that their own motivations are. Would their money be better spent going directly to the organisation they wish to support? Ask where the money goes, who to, how much, and who is really winning from such gimmicks. I encourage people to think about why it is that breast cancer is seen as such a glamorous charity to support. And perhaps, to cast their nets out a little more widely, and consider who they believe is most deserving of their valuable attention, spending money and support.


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Comments (8)

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  1. fuck says:

    monday morning, no thanks.
    yep. we are all such criminals.

  2. Nicole says:

    All types of cancer deserve awareness, this is true. However when I was collecting for the NZBCF on Friday morning, within one hour ten different women, asked me what I was collecting for, despite all the pink, and the pink ribbon emblem slapped across my front. With one in six women being diagnosed every day in New Zealand alone this is an issue. At least ten women of various ages and ethnicities, in just one hour, in one location did not recognise the Breast Cancer Awareness marketing. Maybe this is a reason to turn your profile picture pink, or to by that bar of soap with the pink ribbon on it?
    I would just like to know what qualifies you to directly link breast cancer awareness and sex appeal together. This notion disgusts me. Have you yourself had a Breast Examination or a mammogram perhaps? Have you sat in a room holding the hand of someone you love, whilst they have had a surgical procedure to rid their body of this disgusting disease? Have you sat at someone’s side whilst they have chemicals injected in to their system, to fight off breast cancer? I have. And believe me, there is absolutely nothing sexy about Breast Cancer.
    Not only does this article personally offend me, but I feel that it is unfair of you as a woman to suggest that Breast Cancer charities aren’t as deserving as others.
    So Lydia, If you would like a real look in to the life of someone dealing with Breast Cancer, and would like to see first-hand where some of that charity money goes, please do get in touch with me. I would just love to enlighten you.

  3. Kristian says:

    Well I (belatedly) stand up and applaud you Lydia. I see many examples of pinkwashing as nothing more than cynical viral marketing exercises.

    Nicole, get off your high horse – I sat at the bedside of a good friend with breast cancer on the final night she was alive. Diagnosis to death in a touch over twelve months, aged just 30 years.

    At no stage is she referring to breast cancer as being less deserving than others – she’s making the point that other cancers are just as deserving, yet don’t receive the same publicity that breast cancer does.

  4. james says:

    at least the youth are doing something decent about something so stop complaining cunts

  5. Nicole says:

    Kristian, sorry to hear about your friend.

    I didn’t mean to come from a “high-horse” angle, I am very passionate about the cause, and I am entitled to my opinion. I just don’t see why the success of the NBCF is being measured against other associations. Of course other charities deserve the same publicity and support, but it is up to them to make the publicity happen first, then hopefully public support will follow.
    In the meantime, if people want to make sure they are donating to the research of all sorts of cancer then they can donate to the NZ cancer society. They also do great things for all cancer patients and their support people.

  6. smackdown says:

    da worst thing about dis are el cheapo creeps tryin to cash in on the pink link

    like shitty purfume in a bottle shaped like a high heel. a pink high heel.

    or dat ridiculous race in stalettos for venus razors

    because women running around in shrot skirts and high heels is empowering and doesnt in anyway reinforce the idea that women should just wear short skirts and look pretty for da boyz

    its a scam by scum masters get a clue

  7. smackdown says:

    im mad real mad

  8. My Name says:

    Nicole: With one in six women being diagnosed every day in New Zealand alone this is an issue.

    So in less than a week, pretty much every woman in the country has breast cancer?

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