Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

Breast cancer group
decries pink marketing


NASCAR's "Check your Headlights" breast cancer awareness T-shirt
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October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month but one local agency has called out several national marketing campaigns and offered a sweeping critique of so-called pink ribbon culture, saying it is a distraction that exploits women.

San Francisco-based Breast Cancer Action has issued a detailed statement of how the ubiquitous pink ribbons – the symbol for breast cancer awareness and support – are nothing more than a public relations campaign for companies that profit off of breast cancer. Pink ribbons, BCA claims, do nothing to promote better health or to save women's lives.

BCA's present campaign is a continuation of its award-winning "Think Before You Pink" campaign – the tagline this year is "Stop the Distraction."

"Pink ribbons is one of the most successful marketing campaigns of all time," BCA executive Director Karuna Jaggar told the Bay Area Reporter. "Everyone knows that it stands for breast cancer, but few people know that it's a co-option by corporations of an idea which came from a grassroots activist."

Organizations like the National Football League have joined the pink ribbon campaign in recent years, with players wearing pink shoes, pink wristbands, and other gear on game days throughout the month. BCA claims the NFL is spreading misinformation about breast cancer by repeating disproven and misleading advice about mammography screening in its "Crucial Catch" campaign. A visit to the NFL's website shows a pink ribbon and NFL logo prominently displayed on the page.

Other companies flog everything from pink ribbon trinkets to T-shirts during October.

Jaggar referred to the pink ribbon campaign as "cause marketing."

"Companies make money by putting pink ribbons on their products, thereby gaining consumer loyalty to a company the public thinks is doing good," Jaggar said. "The companies sell more products when a pink ribbon is on it. Does this work for women with breast cancer? It works for the companies. Anyone can put a pink ribbon on anything, a handgun, a Port-a-Potty."

Jaggar said there is no transparency about where money raised by the pink ribbon campaigns goes, and that little goes toward research or prevention.

"Pink ribbons have hijacked the breast cancer movement by focusing on awareness," she said. "It distracts from research on treatment and causes. It's an outrage that after all the billions spent on pink ribbon products, 40,000 women a year are still dying from breast cancer."

Another issue is that the Pink Ribbon campaign tries to force women to have a "positive and peppy" attitude about the disease and attempts to cover up the harsh realities that come with a life threatening illness, Jaggar said. Some of the campaigns sexualize and objectify women in a degrading way, such as the "Save the Boobies" campaign on Facebook, the "Save the Tatas" T-shirts now on sale at, and NASCAR's "Check your Headlights" T-shirts.

"We're talking about a deadly disease," said Jaggar. "At the end of the day we need to honor what breast cancer really feels like."

Jaggar wants to see more of a focus on the possible environmental causes of breast cancer, treatments that save lives without mutilating women's bodies, and preventative medicine.

And in some cases, the marketing campaigns may prove harmful. For example, Jaggar said that Alhambra Water is selling plastic polycarbonate water bottles that contain BPA, a hormone-disrupting chemical linked to breast cancer.

In addition to the NFL and Alhambra, BCA has called out several other companies, including Kohl's "Pink Elephant in the Room" promotion; Hooters, which perpetuates the story of what BCA calls "triumphant survivorship based on positive thinking, beauty tips, and sanitized, carefully chosen images of women;" and Oriental Trading Company, which BCA says is "spreading empty awareness via its endless supply of plastic pink ribbon trinkets – the company pockets all the money from these sales."

None of the companies mentioned in BCA's campaign returned messages seeking comment.

"Pink ribbon culture has failed to address and end the breast cancer epidemic and achieve health justice for all women despite more than 20 years of pink ribbon marketing and awareness campaigns," Jaggar said.

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