Last Saturday, while shopping at Home Hardware, I noticed a rack of items featuring pink breast cancer ribbons. The items ranged from pink frying pans and travel mugs to dog collars and leashes. While the items werenít much different from the dozens of other pink products bombarding shelves the past month, the dog leash seemed excessive.
Waiting in the checkout line, I ranted to my boyfriend about how alienating and frustrating these products must be for people who actually have or have survived breast cancer.
ďI am one of those women, and itís true,Ē said a woman beside me.
I was surprised and a little uncomfortable. Since then, Iíve been thinking more and more about the mass marketing of breast cancer.
While breast cancer is far from the only disease receiving attention from consumer products ó in the U.S., Product (Red) was just launched for AIDS awareness ó itís one of the only diseases with a month-long, full-fledged awareness campaign.
The Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation raises 16.5 per cent of its funds ó or $3.4 million last year ó through corporate support, and much of this money comes from pink ribbon campaigns. I realize these figures are substantial and most charities canít survive without corporate donations.
But despite good intentions, breast cancer marketing and the pink ribbon campaign have introduced an entirely new set of ethical problems.
First, many pink ribbon products disguise the realities of the disease. Advertisements donít show sick people because sick people donít sell products. The truth is, cancer sucks.
Letís recall the facts. Today, every 1.9 minutes a woman is told she has breast cancer; a decade ago it was every three minutes. Death rates have fallen, but not by much.
According to Samantha King, a professor at Queenís and author of the new book Pink Ribbons, Inc., ďThe effect of breast cancer marketing campaigns is to erase from public consciousness of the fact that incidence rates remain stubbornly high and newly diagnosed women face essentially the same options ó surgery, radiation, chemotherapy ó that they did 40 years ago.Ē
Some argue the ribbon is a symbol of hope and support for cancer sufferers. However, King argues not all sufferers experience breast cancer positively. They might feel anger, hopelessness, fear, and become profoundly alienated by pink ribbon culture.
Campaigns also lack transparency and accountability to consumers. For example, I buy yogurt, and since Yoplait supports the campaign, I have no problem switching to the brand for a month. Between August and October, Yoplait donates 10 cents to the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation for every yogurt product sold, to a maximum of $80,000. However, a maximum cap means some people could be buying the product and helping no one but the corporation itself.
A website, www.thinkbeforeyoupink.org, highlights these problems. It urges consumers to stop and ask questions. How much money from sales actually goes toward breast cancer? What is the maximum amount donated? How much money was spent marketing the product, and what is the company doing to ensure the product isnít contributing to the disease?
Ask yourself those same questions. And ask yourself how much you really care. Is buying one pack of yogurt really going to make a difference? Buying something you donít need isnít political action; itís consumption.
Most of us donít need pink M&Mís, pink Serta sheep, or fashionable dog leashes. Instead of buying products you donít need, why not canvas for cancer or donate directly to the organization?
If more people choose activism over consumption, and more companies allocate funds to donations instead of marketing, who knows? A cure might be on the horizon.