The consumerization of cancer awareness

Sam Keimweiss

This year’s pink week was amazing, and before I tear it apart, I want to thank everyone who contributed to making it the awesome celebration it was. We had cookies, donuts, hot chocolate, a bake sale, and events that showed our support for those going through breast cancer. We brought our community together again in the fight against a deadly disease. In my pink week op-ed last year, I talked about how valuable awareness is and all the good pink week does for people; however, I also gave some poor advice. I told you to wear pink.

Pink is the color of breast cancer because Estee Lauder wanted to make money. In 1992, Self Magazine partnered with Estee Lauder, which is owned by Evelyn Lauder, in a publicity campaign during breast cancer awareness month. They chose pink to copy the peach ribbon that was popularized by breast cancer activist Charlotte Haley. Due to eventually accurate concerns about commercialization, she refused to allow her ribbon to be used. The magazine campaign was successful, however, and pink quickly superseded peach.

There was good intent behind the campaign by Self. It has done a ton of good, including the launch of Evelyn Lauder’s Breast Cancer Research Foundation, which has raised hundreds of millions of dollars for research and is Charity Watch’s #1 ranked breast cancer charity. However, it also started a trend that other companies have taken advantage of: pinkwashing, the commercialization of breast cancer awareness for profit, has become a huge problem. Shoppers are more likely to buy pink products or spend more money for a product if they think it supports breast cancer. Companies don’t have to pledge any money to cancer research in order to sell pink-branded items. Even when they do, it usually pales in comparison to the huge profit they are making. Giving ten cents for every dollar made on an item that has been marked up 20% because of the pink brand still benefits the company disproportionately.

Some breast cancer activists have argued that the best way to combat that problem is to avoid pink altogether and instead focus on fundraising, but I disagree with that approach. Especially in communities like that of our school, awareness is still important. Wearing pink is an essential way to make breast cancer stand out from other issues. However, when you buy your “real men wear pink” shirt, make sure most of the money is going towards research.

Even when you donate to a foundation, these problems come up. Each foundation uses donated money differently, and if you want to be sure you’re donating to the right place, you have to do
your research. Every foundation has its downsides. If you want to donate only to breast cancer research, you have to choose between Memorial Sloan Kettering, which researches all cancers; the American Cancer Society, which focuses on treatment and care; the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, which donates both to research and to lobbying for government funding; and dozens of other options. Some foundations are downright scummy; the Breast Cancer Society, for example, was just a scam. (It has since been shut down.) Others have complicated histories and goals that make evaluating them difficult.

The best example of this is Susan G. Komen, a foundation founded in the 1980’s that brings in hundreds of millions of dollars each year. At first glance, it might seem worrying: after pulling out of Planned Parenthood mammogram screenings in 2012, it was revealed the only 20% of Komen’s funds go to research, while the CEO made over $650,000. People were up in arms, and the CEO resigned, and the mammogram screening funding was restored. The new CEO still makes almost $500,000. Upon closer examination, however, Susan G. Komen is still a strong charity, receiving a score of 80 out of 100 from Charity Navigator (the other top charity watchdog site—Charity Watch being the first). Although only 20% of its funding goes to research, 79% is spent on services with only 11% going to administrative costs and 10% to fundraising costs. So for every dollar you donate, 80 cents will go towards Komen’s mission. Unfortunately, this means you don’t know where a portion of your money actually goes.

Giving money saves lives. It may not all literally go towards care, but the money always helps. Awareness is great, and it certainly brings communities together in support, but it can’t hold a candle to the good of cold hard cash. Your money has value, so make sure that you are confident in where it is going. This means that if you are buying things for pink week, make sure your money is going towards the cause you want it to.