The Power of Pink

By: Mandy Cummings, WildRock Account Coordinator

As you most likely know, October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Hopefully you’re aware of this dedication because it has been a time to learn more about breast cancer research and support the many women fighting this disease with bravery and resolve. More likely, you know that October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month because everything from your morning yogurt to household cleaning products transformed into pink the eve of Sept. 30. As a PR and marketing professional, this phenomenon of “pinkwashing” brings up an ethical discussion around using marketing tactics to raise awareness and support for a non-profit cause.

The organization Breast Cancer Action has launched a cleverly titled watchdog project, Think Before You Pink, which claims the mission to educate consumers regarding, “the truth about the epidemic, because we are the only national breast cancer organization that does not accept funding from entities that profit from or contribute to cancer.” Companies are fast to profit on turning their products pink, promoting a socially conscious reputation while conveniently marketing more appealingly to women. In truth, these organizations may be donating minimally to breast cancer funds. Some companies have even gone so far as to put pink ribbons on packaging for products that have been linked to causing cancer, like alcohol and toxic makeup products like nail polish.

Beyond profiting off of a serious, life-threatening disease, the trend of pasting pink ribbons on entire product inventories has been attributed to rendering the symbol ineffective- to the extent of being counterproductive. Critics challenge that the ribbon has ceased to be a symbol for the cure, and instead promotes a false sense of activism representing “corporate cancer culture.”

Of the many businesses that transform their storefronts into pink lands of social activism during the month of October, the National Football League is perhaps the most interesting case study for pinkwashing. Targeting the coveted female demographic is a constant struggle for the NFL brand, and October gives them an opportunity to turn everything from cleats to merchandise- you guessed it- pink. Those who generally tune out the game as they indulge in pizza rolls and socialization (okay, this is a personal anecdote) are suddenly paying attention to the pink screen. And buying pink jerseys. And feeling proud that their new interest in football is also supporting a cause close to many women’s hearts, breast cancer awareness.

The truth, however, is that numbers from 2012 report that the NFL donated $1.5 million to breast cancer research, just .01 percent of the $9 billion the league made last year. According to an article released by Business Insider, the NFL gets $45 from every $100 in pink sales, leaving a disproportionate $3.54 towards research. After experimenting with adding pink penalty flags to the campaign in 2013 (understandably confused with the athletes’ October pink towels), the NFL went overboard to the extent of annoying fans and viewers. Not the philanthropic image they were aiming for.

So, why does this matter? It can be argued that regardless of whether a company profits off pink gear or not, they are still “raising awareness” for the cause. Corporations are created to make money, and if they can fulfill that purpose while also increasing the public’s awareness about a deadly disease then that’s their prerogative, regardless of whether they’re actually donating significant contributions.

My counter is this: Above all, companies should strive to be authentic and genuine in their humanitarian support for causes. The best reflection of your brand is an honest and unmotivated effort to do good in the world and be socially conscious corporate leaders.

This post is not to discount all organizations speaking out on behalf of breast cancer awareness. For those passionate about the cause of raising meaningful awareness and funds for breast cancer research, here is a link to some questions to guide your research into where your money as a consumer is going. As a marketing agency, we challenge you to focus your businesses’ community support on causes that you are genuinely invested in and can dedicate your brand to without ulterior motives. It’s good business, and it’s good for the world.