Pinkwashing: Do Sexy Ad Campaigns Really Help Breast-Cancer Cause?

Breast cancer awareness has become synonymous with the ubiquitous pink ribbon. Everyone know what the pink ribbon means; it's successfully become a logo associated with the disease. Since October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, you have most likely seen the pink ribbon plastered on everything from potato chips to dryer sheets to alcohol. There are numerous commercials promoting that if you buy "X" product, they will give some portion of each sold to (insert breast cancer research organization or charity here).

The Internet, as an infinite mode of spreading information, is also an active frontier for awareness raising campaigns, particularly via Facebook and Twitter. Remember a Facebook campaign is why Betty White hosted her first episode of Saturday Night Live despite having a 50+ year career in television. There were Twibbons (Twitter ribbons) that tweeters posted on their avatars (the small photo that accompanies your profile) for Haiti earthquake relief and many turned their avatars green in support of democracy in Iran during their elections last year. There's pink ribbons available all year for breast cancer awareness. My question is what does "awareness" mean?

By now, most women from tweens to seniors know that we should be doing self-exams and checking for lumps in the shower. We know that we should get mammograms at 50, despite conflicting research. This is key information for both women and men. We also know that the branding of the color pink in October signifies breast cancer. But are we as a society using ribbons and social media to truly advance the cause?

If you're a woman who is a Facebook user, you may have already received messages in your inbox asking you to play a "game" to raise awareness of breast cancer month. The game asks you to post in your status where you like to keep your purse. Huh? You are supposed to write in your status: "I like it on the counter" or "I like it on the desk" offering some sexual innuendo so that men Facebookers will catch on and instantly be interested in breast cancer. If you're not making the connection between where you like "it" and breast cancer, you're not alone. This is the latest incarnation of a earlier campaign in which women posted their bra color in their status...but at least there's a connection with bras and breasts though the premise of "mystery" and "secrecy" is still the same.

An article on Time.com addresses the misguided idea of tantalizing men to create interest and awareness, noting that these sexually-tinged status updates get attention but not the kind that is going to inspire someone to research breast cancer. To go a step further, can't we find a more clever way to get men's and other women's attention about breast cancer? For example, the awareness campaign "Save the TaTas" is flirty and effective. Getting heterosexual men to focus on breasts isn't that tough but seriously I think we are grossly underestimating their intelligence and interest in breast cancer prevention. Many men have experienced dealing with the disease via their mothers, wives, sisters, daughters, extended family and friends. Are we also eliminating the idea of gay men as advocates and allies as well?

Also, in the arena of pseudo-dogooding, I saw this clip today on MSNBC about the idea of "pinkwashing".

The idea is that many of the "pink" products actually contribute to breast, and other forms, of cancer. As Angela Wall from Breast Cancer Action (BCA) mentioned, alcohol companies are cashing in on the awareness campaigns spinning the idea that buying a pink ribbon labeled bottle today is supporting breast cancer research all year long even though there is a connection between alcohol and breast cancer. There are also various cosmetics companies participating in the pink ribbon craze meanwhile many of their products which women use daily (such as perfume and lipstick) are loaded with carcinogens. It's not just liquor and cosmetics, but I've noticed that any products that are associated with women are using the pink ribbon, particularly detergents and house cleaners (more gender stereotyping) made from toxic chemicals including known carcinogens.

It's natural to feel good about buying a product from a company that is contributing money to a good cause like breast cancer prevention. However BCA's "Think Before You Pink" campaign asks consumers to consider what they are buying in the name of breast cancer awareness. So instead of continuing the cycle and exposing ourselves to things that increase our chances of developing cancer, let's consider donating directly to breast cancer research organizations, or supporting a friend who is doing "Race for the Cure." 

To return to social media's role, there has been some pushback from both men and women about the Facebook status campaign and in response many organizations and individuals are encouraging their friends to post legitimate articles on breast cancer if they are planning to participate. At least people can still have the fun of being "sexy" backed up with some relevant and potentially life-saving information. I'm curious to know where this campaign originated because it has done more promotion for Facebook than for breast cancer.

There is a wide variety of breast cancer resources available online and specifically on Facebook. For example: Breast Cancer Awareness not only sells pink ribbon products to raise money for mammograms but also is encouraging interactivity by asking people who "like" them to share a story or post in their status the name of someone they have grown closer to because of breast cancer. The Breast Cancer Campaign, based in England, created an application where users purchase a ribbon for their Facebook page with proceeds going directly to fund research.

However we individually decide to support breast cancer prevention (or not), let's please take a moment to think about how we are concretely advancing the cause. Did we educate others or ourselves? Did we support research for a cure? Did we lend a listening ear for a survivor that wants to share their story? I think those things can have a bigger impact than pink dryer sheets or perfume. 

And for the record, I like it on my chair.

This post was originally published at RH Reality Check, a site of news, community and commentary for reproductive health and justice


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