Pinkwashing in Pinktober

by Jessie Losch

The dairy aisle has turned pink.  So, too, the cereal section, and the half of the bread aisle not taken over by Halloween candy [though some of those are pink, too].  From almond milk to rice cakes to M&M’s, pink ribbons have sprouted overnight all over once innocuous foodstuffs.


It is October, and, in the marketing world, that means Pink.  Pink for National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, which gained federal recognition in 1985 as a partnership of the American Cancer Society and Imperial Chemical Industries, now AstraZeneca.  Begun as a push to promote mammography, National Breast Cancer Awareness Month is now recognized worldwide, and is globally associated with the ubiquitous color pink.  For the entire month of October, pink takes over.  On October 1, 2007, Japan’s Tokyo Tower was lit up in pink lights; every October, NFL players kit themselves out in pink; even Barbie gets involved with the Pink Label Pink Ribbon Barbie Doll.  It’s not just product placement; October sees races, mammogram drives, and Avon and Susan G. Komen are among the many organizations that sponsor day-long races “for the cure.”  Yoplait is the national sponsor of Susan G. Komen’s national walk; during the month of October, the yogurt lids are all pink, and ten cents are donated to Komen for each pink lid mailed in by consumers.   


In 2009, three advocacy groups for male breast cancer joined together to globally establish the third week of October as Male Breast Cancer Awareness Week: two of these organizations?  Out of the Shadow of Pink, and A Man’s Pink.

On one hand, I am thrilled that breast cancer is now so public.  In conjunction with the tidal wave of pink comes information on screening, symptoms, and other potentially life-saving material.  And we feel good about piling our shopping carts with pink beribboned items.  Isn’t it great that we can buy the frozen waffles we love while helping fight breast cancer at the same time?  In her review of Dr. Samantha King’s book Pink Ribbon, Inc. [now an award-winning documentary], Misty McCormick Chisum writes, “who hasn’t bought that extra cup of yogurt or that pink scarf that matches nothing in the closet just to show support for the breast cancer cause?  Most women have seen what breast cancer can do in the lives of real women… I have always felt that sweet inner glow after making a purchase if I knew that a small percentage of the proceeds would go to breast cancer research…I felt that I was doing my part.” 

But is that actually what we’re doing?  Am I really donating to vital breast cancer research when I choose the pink ribbon toilet paper over the plain white? Seriously; that’s a choice I was recently faced with.  Are my breast cancer awareness stamps really helpful as they “show support, and hope for a cure,” as the post office proudly proclaims?  Or are we being lulled into feeling charitable, or, worse, so inundated with ribbons of every color that we are inured to what they truly represent?

Breast Cancer Action, a watchdog group based in San Francisco, coined the term “pinkwashing” in response to the pink ribbons adorning the products of companies who manufacture and use chemicals with links to breast and other cancers.  In 2008, Breast Cancer Action’s Think Before You Pink campaign took on General Mills, the makers of Yoplait, the national sponsor of Susan G. Komen’s Race for the CureYoplait yogurt uses milk from cows shot up with rBGH, a synthetic hormone banned in most countries around the world [not the United States], which some studies link to an increase in cancer cells.  The Think Before You Pink campaign lists those companies who tout breast cancer support with their marketing branches while continuing to promote harmful products.  “There is a value to awareness,” Breast Cancer Action’s Barbara Brenner says of the pink ribbons of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month,” but awareness of what, and to what end?” 

To what end?  I had to smile at a box of tea all in pink, which made me think of my Aunt Iris, a teapot collector and one of my favorite people, who died a few years ago after her second battle with breast cancer.  I happened to have teabags on my grocery list, and popped those in my cart.  But the pink ribbon toilet paper I vetoed in favor of a more eco-friendly brand, and the Mike’s Hard Pink Lemonade? I felt more than a little uneasy about the idea of buying liquor to support breast cancer awareness.  But maybe that’s just me. 

We’d love to hear your thoughts about National Breast Cancer Awareness Month and the pink ribbons campaigns!