How good intentions have been co-opted for capital gain
A nude woman is printed on the glossy page of a magazine. Her arms wrap around her torso, concealing her breasts. The image is cropped just above the nose. Her eyes are not to be seen. A graphic of a pink ribbon is beside her, letting the viewer know that the advertisement is for breast cancer awareness.
The perpetual sexualization of breast cancer awareness campaigns and the commercialization of the pink ribbon have become commonplace in the capitalist landscape of the United States. Football players wear pink gloves once per season. Yogurt containers and soda cans sport a pink ribbon on grocery store shelves.
This attachment of breast cancer to events and advertising has led to a trivialization of a disease, which according to breastcancer.org will impact 12 percent of U.S. women, said Gayle Sulik, sociologist, founder of the Breast Cancer Coalition and author of the book Pink Ribbon Blues.
“Breast cancer has become a brand with a pink ribbon logo,” she said. “As soon as that crystallized for me, I realized that a lot of the awareness, and even a lot of the advocacy connected to awareness, was self-promotion and advertising.”
The spread of this brand has taken attention away from the reality of the disease, she said.
“It’s all about advertising and selling of stuff, and the selling of very narrow ideas of what it means to be at risk for breast cancer, deal with breast cancer and honor someone with breast cancer,” Sulik said. “It’s all about that consumption based forum.”
The National Football League participated in Breast Cancer Awareness Month by featuring pink clothing and field equipment throughout October. This initiative, called A Crucial Catch, happened in partnership with the American Cancer Society, according to the NFL website. According to the NFL, the apparel worn by coaches and players, along with pink-branded balls and coins, were auctioned off to raise money for ACS.
This effort, however, made little contribution to cancer research. Following the distribution of funds to the NFL, ACS administration, merchandise retailers and merchandise manufacturers, only 8.01 percent of the proceeds went to cancer research, according to a Business Insider report.
“That’s more commercialization and self-aggrandizement on the part of the team, the league and the advertisers,” Sulik said. “It’s all about saying ‘Hey, look at me doing this good thing for this good cause…They’re not focusing on pancreatic cancer. They’re not focusing on any other kind of chronic condition. They’re not even focusing so much on concussions, even though that’s what they could do more with. They are focusing on the pink ribbon because it’s sexy and it’s trendy, and it’s easy to jump on that bandwagon.”
The term “pinkwashing” was created by Breast Cancer Action, a watchdog organization of the breast cancer movement founded in 1990 to describe this phenomena. The phrase came out of their Think Before You Pink campaign, which aims to call out companies who are pinkwashing products while contributing to the risk of cancer.
“We coined the phrase ‘pinkwashing’ to refer, not just broadly to the cause marketing… but specifically to the hypocrisy of companies that claim to care about breast cancer but are contributing to the risk of the disease,” said Karuna Jaggar, executive director of Breast Cancer Action.
For example, in 2008 the organization launched a campaign targeting Yoplait for their pink-lidded yogurt containers. At the time, according to Jagger, the yogurt was produced with RBGH, a synthetic growth hormone linked to the increased risk of cancer. Following the campaign called Put a Lid on It, General Mills, which owns Yoplait, committed to stop the use of synthetic growth hormones.
Corporations who donate money to breast cancer organizations while contributing to the risk of cancer, are further diminishing the perceived significance of the disease, Jagger said.
“There is this cancer industry where, by the same nonprofits which are serving the cancer community, are taking huge amounts of corporate funding from companies which are contributing to cancer in the first place,” she said. “It’s really that interlocking system that we call the cancer industry.”
The commercialization of breast cancer as opposed to other cancers has been caused by the sexualization of the disease, Sulik said.
“Other cancers are not as sexy as boobs,” she said.
In conjunction with commercialization, this sexualization leads to the trivialization of the cancer, Jagger said.
“Sex sells,” she said. “This is the U.S. We have these really damaging campaigns that talk about ‘save the tatas,’ ‘save second base,’ ‘save the boobies.’ What about saving women’s lives? We have these campaigns that degrade women, objectify them, turn them into breasts. The truth is that women have their breasts surgically removed to save their lives sometimes. What does that do to the ‘save the boobies’ campaign?”
The perpetuation of pink ribbon messaging oversimplifies the reality of the cancer, causing women to misunderstand the risk of getting breast cancer, of cancer recurrence and of survival rates, Jagger said. The advice on women’s health decisions comes from corporate marketing teams rather than health professionals.
“It creates this single story that makes us feel good,” Jagger said. “It’s a story of triumphant survivorship, of positive thinking and of these sanitized women, many of whom are young, white and thin, that just don’t reflect the lived reality with the disease. They tell women, ‘If you don’t survive your breast cancer was it your fault? Did you not stay positive enough?’”
This objectification has additional implications in terms of the sexism plaguing women today, Sulik said.
“On the one hand you have the reality that about 99 percent of all cases of breast cancer are women, a majority of cases, so it’s a women focus,” Sulik said. “Then you can attach the gender focus to it as well because it’s really connected to women’s sexuality, traditional gender roles and taking care of one’s sexuality, and presentation to others, to continue to be sexy and thrive after the disease. All of that is very, very gendered, including the pink ribbon.”
The origin of the pink ribbon as an emblem for breast cancer came out of humble, non-commercial roots.
According to Breast Cancer Action’s website, the breast cancer ribbon was created by Charlotte Haley in 1991. This ribbon, however, was not pink, but peach.
Haley, who died in 2014, began distributing these peach ribbons attached to a postcard, informing people that only 5 percent of the National Cancer Institute’s annual budget was allocated for cancer prevention. She encouraged those receiving the postcard and ribbon to push legislators to take action, according to the website.
That same year, the first breast cancer awareness issue of Self magazine was published. In 1992, the magazine contacted Haley for permission to use her ribbon. Not wanting the ribbon to go corporate, she declined.
Legally, Self could use the ribbon if they chose a different color. Following Haley’s rejection, the magazine’s editors conducted focus groups in order to select the best color to represent breast cancer, and settled on pink.
“Pink was everything that breast cancer was not,” Sulik said. “It was not scary. Instead it was very soothing, very calming, very neutralizing and then it was also connected to femininity.”
This switch to the pink ribbon jump started the commercialization of the disease, Jagger said.
“The pink ribbon has become the most successful marketing tool of our day,” she said. “There is no one who does not know what a pink ribbon stands for. It is an incredibly powerful and well-known symbol.”
In the midst of this growing commercialization of breast cancer, it is important to remember that the average person involved is acting from a place of compassion, Sulik said.
“On an individual level, many people who are involved in the pink ribbon crusade — and I would say it is definitely a crusade at this point — are very well intentioned,” she said.
With this in mind, Sulik said, it is essential that people begin to understand that the branding of the pink ribbon and the disease is working as a force.
“It’s almost like a conveyer belt,” she said. “The pink ribbon conveyer belt is there and all you have to do is step on. It’s going to go. It’s going to go and go. So, even though there are good intentions (that) connect to the people who often hop on that conveyor belt… they don’t necessarily see where the conveyer belt is going.”
The solution to blindly following the pink ribbon trend is to begin asking questions about to whom the money made from pinkwashed products is going, and how much of it will be going there, Sulik said.
This money, she said, is not always going somewhere, and pushing companies to disclose will confirm or reject that.
“There is no law that requires any company to actually disclose where they are giving money, and how much that they are giving,” she said. “They can put a ribbon on anything. They can say it’s going toward the fight against breast cancer and there is no way to follow up.”
According to Jaggar, the solution to this epidemic is a complete shift in the health care and information system.
“Enough with the empty awareness,” she said. “It’s time for real action. What does real action look like? It looks like evidence-based health care delivered in a culturally competent way that’s affordable for all women, so that we’re not getting our health advice from corporate marketing teams, and we are really getting high-quality, evidence-based information that’s delivered in a timely and culturally sensitive way.”
The glossy image of a naked woman gracefully covering her breasts is not indicative of the trauma that breast cancer patients endure, both physically and emotionally. A pink glove on the hand of a professional football player does not improve cancer treatment methods. These symbols are indicative of the exploitation of the breast cancer experience through the connection of commercialization and sexualization.
Emma Rizzo is a senior journalism and Spanish double major who likes to have breakfast for under 15 dollars, thank you very much. Email her at [email protected].