If you like the color pink, you're going to love the month of October.
With Breast Cancer Awareness Month kicking off today, the pink-ribbon marketing campaign is in full-juggernaut mode in stores, magazines and on billboards, with pink Serta mattresses, pink Kitchen-Aid mixers, pink M&M's, pink Dyson vacuum cleaners,
"Pink Rose" Green Tea ("Sip for the Cure"), pink Smith & Hawken watering cans and pink Lean Cuisine designer lunch bags. Add to that Ralph Lauren "Pink Pony" tennis balls and $3,900 Cartier Roadster watches, which aren't pink, but you get the idea.
All of these pink-ribbon items are said to raise money to fight breast cancer, which is diagnosed in more than 200,000 women a year in the United States.
But how much money from each sale really goes into research? Too little, says Breast Cancer Action, a San Francisco-based advocacy group that is urging consumers to "think before you pink."
"Breast cancer has become the darling of corporate cause-related marketing," said Rebecca Farmer, a spokesman for Breast Cancer Action. "There's nothing offensive about it, there's no stigma, it's something everyone can get behind. But how much is being spent on marketing compared to what's being donated?"
Her group has created a Web site, www.thinkbeforeyoupink.org, listing questions consumers should ask before opening their wallets.
For example, she said, 3M spent $500,000 marketing its 2004 breast cancer awareness campaign -- which included a 70-foot-tall ribbon made of Post-it Notes in Times Square -- and saw an increase in sales that was 80 percent over projections. But in the end, 3M gave $300,000 to the cause.
"That might seem like a lot of money, but it may be only a fraction of the profits realized from attaching 3M's name to breast cancer research. We'll never know, because companies don't release that information," Ms. Farmer said, noting that the 3M marketing amount was revealed in an article in PR Week, a trade journal for public relations professionals. Attempts by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette to contact 3M representatives were unsuccessful.
Yogurt-maker Yoplait will donate 10 cents for every yogurt lid mailed back to the company. But one would have to eat three cups of yogurt a day for four months to raise $36 in donations for breast cancer research, Ms. Farmer noted, adding that the company won't release information on their marketing and promotion budget for the pink-ribbon campaign.
A spokesman for Yoplait, owned by General Mills, said its program had raised $15.5 million for cancer research over the past nine years, with another $3 million projected for this year if the company meets all of its goals.
"The company will also donate $500,000, even if not a single yogurt lid is sent in," said David Witt, Yoplait's spokesman.
So why not just donate the money outright?
"We think it's important to involve and include consumers in this very important effort to promote breast cancer awareness," he said.
Pink-ribbon marketing dates to 1992, when Evelyn Lauder, whose family owns Estee Lauder Cosmetics, decided to take a page from the AIDS-HIV red-ribbon campaign in her own quest to raise awareness and funds for breast cancer research. That fall, Estee Lauder makeup counters handed out 1.5 million ribbons, along with instructions on how to conduct a proper breast self-exam. It also collected more than 200,000 pink-ribbon petitions urging the White House to push for more funding for research.
Since then, the pink ribbon has become synonymous with the battle to defeat breast cancer, and is perhaps the biggest success story in the rapidly expanding field of cause-related marketing.
Americans approve overwhelmingly of such efforts. A 2004 Cone Corporate Citizen study found that more than 85 percent of those surveyed said they were likely to switch from one brand to another of similar price and quality if the other brand were associated with a cause.
Still, there are signs that pink-ribbon fatigue may be setting in, at least among activist groups impatient with the slow progress in finding a cure. The National Breast Cancer Coalition has started a Web site, www.lesspinkmoreresearch.com, to alert members to congressional opponents of research into the environmental causes of breast cancer. The coalition's founder, Fran Visco, has publicly complained that some members of Congress will gladly wear pink ribbons on their lapels, yet won't vote to increase research funding. Congress voted last year to swath the St. Louis Arch in pink light in honor of breast cancer awareness while refusing to move on cancer research legislation, she said.
Charges of 'pinkwashing'
While there is no scientific consensus on the causes of breast cancer, some activists believe environmental factors play a big role. That, they argue, is why so many companies engage in the practice of "pinkwashing," using cause-related marketing to distract consumers from the fact their products possibly contribute to breast cancer.
"There's a definite correlation between those companies whose products may be deleterious to public health and those who get involved in pink-ribbon campaigns," said Samantha King, a health researcher and author of a new book, "Pink Ribbons Inc: Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy."
"Car companies and makeup companies are among the biggest participants in 'pinkwashing,' " she said, "which should be no surprise."
Other breast cancer groups are more cautious about making such connections. While the Susan G. Komen Foundation's Web site urges transparency on the part of companies that market pink-ribbon products, it does not ask consumers to boycott particular businesses that might or might not be polluting the air or using questionable chemicals, said Katrina Drake, director of cause-related marketing for the group, "because we don't know yet what the causes of breast cancer are."
Plus, their work is not just about raising money for research, but about breast health education, she added. Pink-ribbon marketing often includes information about the disease and can reach poor and minority communities that might otherwise not know about the risks.
Another major player in the field is The Breast Cancer Research Foundation, which has raised nearly $144 million since its founding by cosmetics magnate Ms. Lauder in 1993. This year, it's issuing a Pink Buys catalog of products available along with donation information. The amounts are wide ranging: Rowenta donates 100 percent of profits from sales of its pink irons to the foundation, while Donna Karan caps its contribution at $17,500, no matter how many women buy its Cashmere Mist Eau de Parfum at $40 a pop in October.
The foundation encourages consumers "to ask critical questions" before buying products supporting breast cancer research, and stresses that it won't accept partners that are unwilling to state how much they're giving, spokeswoman Julie Orchier said.
"Sometimes, companies will call us up and ask us to be sponsors, and you can tell their heart is really not in it," Ms. Orchier said. "So we ask them 10 or 12 questions, and, sometimes, we have to tell them we don't think we're a good fit."
Still, Breast Cancer Action said that, while Ms. Lauder is widely recognized as one of the most visible advocates for more breast cancer research, Estee Lauder declined, along with most of the biggest cosmetic companies, to sign a compact sponsored by the National Safe Cosmetics Campaign to remove harmful chemicals from their products that might be associated with breast cancer.
"There are people at Estee Lauder who really care and want to do something good." Ms. Farmer said. "But people need to think about what they're buying." Estee Lauder didn't return phone calls requesting comment.
For those on a quest to do something to eradicate breast cancer but who have wearied of pink ribbons and corporate PR, there are some mom-and-pop versions out there trying to open consumers' hearts and wallets. There is nary a shade of pink on www.commerceforcancer.com, a Web site created by Jack Knight, a University of Pittsburgh researcher by day and a singer-songwriter by night, whose mother died of breast cancer when he was 4.
At commerceforcancer.com, users can link to Amazon or other Web sites to buy products and do good at the same time. Ten percent of each purchase will be diverted to breast cancer research, said Mr. Knight, of Hampton.
While he's noticed a lot of pink around, "it's hard for me to see something negative in someone trying to do something about breast cancer." Still, companies should provide a full accounting of what they spend on donations and marketing, he added.
"Is there some bad with the good? Sure," said Rebecca Whitlinger, director of the Burger King Cares Breast Cancer Center in Bloomfield. "But the pink-ribbon campaign is overwhelmingly good. It's important to have watchdogs in every industry, and the consumer and buyer need to beware. But 10 or 15 years ago, we didn't hear anything about breast cancer research, and now, public awareness is astronomical."
Then she paused.
"Of course, I have noticed that people are getting a little bit tired of pink."
Correction/Clarification: (Published Oct. 2, 2006) The Web site for breast cancer awareness was incorrect in this story as originally published Oct. 1, 2006. The correct site is thinkbeforeyoupink.org.
Mackenzie Carpenter can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1949.