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Think pink? Think again

Pink Gun
Handgun sold as part of a "breast cancer awareness kit"

Each October, we face a tidal wave of pink ribbon products and promotions. Everything from the NFL to Niagara Falls goes “pink for breast cancer.” But despite all the awareness and all the money raised, breast cancer remains an urgent public health crisis and a critical social justice issue. While corporations make billions off the disease, we have not seen nearly enough progress in breast cancer treatment, prevention, and survival, or in addressing inequities in access to treatment.

The numbers are grim. Each year, 250,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer. Up to one-third of all breast cancers will metastasize (spread beyond the breast into the rest of the body); it is metastatic breast cancer that kills women. Black women are 40 percent more likely to die of breast cancer than their white counterparts. And each year, 40,000 women die of breast cancer, despite all the awareness and pink ribbons.

The pink ribbon, arguably the most successful cause marketing initiative in history, was born as a cooptation of grassroots activism. The original breast cancer ribbon was not pink, and it stood for breast cancer prevention, not the vague “awareness” of the pink ribbon. In the early 1990s, a 68-year-old woman named Charlotte Haley—whose grandmother, sister, and daughter had all had breast cancer—was alarmed by the number of breast cancer diagnoses in her family and her southern California community. She wanted to draw attention to the issue, so she attached peach-colored ribbons to postcards and distributed them to everyone she knew. Her postcards said: “The National Cancer Institute’s annual budget is $1.8 billion. Only 5 percent goes for cancer prevention. Help us wake up our legislators and America by wearing this ribbon.”

Charlotte’s outrage about a lack of federal commitment to cancer prevention resonated with people, and her one-woman campaign started getting national media attention. Self magazine and Estée Lauder asked Charlotte if they could use her peach ribbon as a promotional tool during Breast Cancer Awareness Month. But, Alexandra Penney of Self magazine said, “[Haley] wanted nothing to do with us. Said we were too commercial.” Self and Estée Lauder asked lawyers how they could still use the ribbon; the lawyers said they just needed to use a different color. Focus groups found that people saw pink as a soothing, comforting, quieting color. And so the pink ribbon was born.

Since the introduction of the pink ribbon in the early ‘90s, pink ribbon cause marketing has become big business for corporations, which have profited mightily by aligning themselves with fighting breast cancer. Corporations profit immediately when customers buy pink ribbon products, and they profit long after from the consumer loyalty they garner by linking their company with a worthy cause in the public mind.

As a feminist organization with roots in the women’s health movement, Breast Cancer Action challenges the narrow definitions of femininity, womanhood, and sexuality that mainstream narratives about breast cancer impose on people at risk of and living with the disease. We work to challenge mainstream assumptions about gender and sexuality as they relate to breast cancer risk, diagnosis, and treatment in order to make room for people of all gender identities in the breast cancer movement.

In response to our members’ concerns about the growing number of pink ribbon promotions, in 2002 we launched our Think Before You Pink campaign. Through this campaign, we challenge corporate hypocrisy in breast cancer fundraising and marketing, and call attention to the countless ways the breast cancer industry, and the culture of pink it has spawned, distract attention away from the bold action we need to successfully address and end the breast cancer epidemic and to achieve health justice for all women in all communities.

We’ve identified six ways that pink ribbon culture distracts from meaningful progress on breast cancer:

1. Pink ribbon products spread empty awareness. “Awareness” has failed to address and end the breast cancer epidemic. Who isn’t aware of breast cancer these days? Pink ribbon trinkets on store shelves that promote “awareness” ultimately change nothing. By making the public think “awareness” is the end goal, pink ribbon culture defuses anger about breast cancer and its devastating impact, and distracts us from the meaningful actions that will achieve health justice for us all.

2. Corporations exploit concern about breast cancer for profit. Each October, marketers take advantage of people’s sincere concern about breast cancer to make money and generate good publicity. Anyone can put a pink ribbon on anything, and they do—from handguns to garbage trucks, from perfume to toilet paper. But there is no transparency or accountability about where the pink ribbon money goes. Sometimes no money at all from the purchase goes to a breast cancer organization. But even if the company does make a donation, most of these promotions ultimately benefit corporations far more than they help women living with and at risk of breast cancer.

3. Pink ribbon promotions spread misinformation. Many pink ribbon campaigns exaggerate women’s risk of developing breast cancer, spread the myth that “early detection is your best protection” or “annual screening saves lives,” focus on a five-year cure rate for a disease that remains a risk throughout a woman’s life, or blithely fudge statistics in other ways. These inaccuracies allow pink ribbon marketers to manipulate consumers’ emotions through fear-mongering and false promises—in order to sell more products. Breast cancer campaigns must offer evidence-based information that does not fuel fear or offer empty promises in the attempt to sell pink products.

4. Pink ribbon promotions often degrade women by objectifying and sexualizing women’s breasts and bodies. From “save the boobies” to “save the ta-tas” to “save second base,” campaigns like these demean and insult women—and distract from the true focus of saving women’s lives. They highlight narrow standards of beauty (thin, white, able-bodied, and young), depict women as coy sex objects, and too often promote the fantasy of “perfect” breasts. These sexy/cute campaigns hide the lived experiences of women in all their diversity and complexity.

5. Pink ribbon culture obscures the harsh reality of breast cancer by creating a single story of triumphant survivorship based on positive thinking, beauty tips, and sanitized, carefully chosen images of women. Breast cancer is not pretty and pink, and many women who “fight hard,” “fight like a girl,” and try to “beat breast cancer” develop metastatic cancer and still die from the disease. The pink ribbon covers up the devastating, harsh reality that so many women and their loved ones are dealing with. We must value all women living with and at risk of breast cancer and recognize the hard realities of breast cancer, including and especially metastatic disease.

6. Some pink ribbon products are linked to causing breast cancer. Years ago, Breast Cancer Action came up with a term for this, pinkwashing: the outrageous corporate practice of selling products linked to an increased risk of breast cancer while claiming to care about (and profiting from) breast cancer. This year, we are challenging two giant agricultural companies who are using leftover wastewater from oil corporations to irrigate their citrus—while also using pink ribbons to sell them.

Since our founding in 1990, our grassroots network of members has been turning their anger, grief, and outrage to action. Pink ribbons and platitudes will not end this terrible epidemic that is killing too many of the people we love. Instead we must join together to demand systemic changes—such as ending everyday exposures to toxic chemicals that are driving the breast cancer epidemic, eliminating the systemic racism that means women of color are more likely to die of breast cancer, and insisting that new treatments are safe and effective—that get at the roots of the breast cancer epidemic and achieve health justice for all women at risk of and living with breast cancer.

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