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Breast Cancer a Disease, No a Marketing Opportunity

14 mars 2010

par Elsie Hambrook, Chairperson of the New Brunswick Advisory Council on the Status of Women

The breast is not, in this society, just another part of the body. So we should have expected that breast disease such as cancer would be subject to different treatment than other diseases.

Still, some of the breast cancer related campaigns are surprising. Most are inspiring and rallying - but some are exploitative.

A few weeks ago, messages were flying around Facebook inboxes, chain-mail style, urging women to post the color of their bra on their profiles to raise breast cancer awareness - and to confuse men who would get updates with just a name of a colour. No information, no explanation - just the bra colour. Many immediately criticized this “awareness raising” technique. Newsweek blogger Mary Carmichael pointed out that “At this point, there can’t be a person in the world who isn’t aware of breast cancer... This isn’t awareness or education ; it’s titillation… It’s harmless, but also pointless.” A feminist blog at was even more incisive : “This bra color movement seems a similarly desperate attempt to get guys to simply give a crap about breast cancer by making it sexy and flirtatious, which I find not only embarrassing to women but insulting to men.”

Last September, Canadian charity Rethink Breast Cancer released an ad to promote a “Boobyball” fundraiser that featured a buxom woman entering a pool party while being ogled by attendees. The camera cuts between close ups of her bouncing breasts and snippets of text that string together to say : “You know you like them. Now it’s time to save the boobs.”

Sexualized breast cancer awareness campaigns are a new thing, but more common is cause-related marketing - placing a pink ribbon on products and promising a portion of proceeds will go to research or awareness raising. Companies attract buyers to their products because of the charitable nature, but only pass on their customer’s money while they enjoy greater profits. Some companies will pledge to match the donation their customers’ purchases generate though many don’t advertise that they also cap their donations. One American consultancy firm found that 79% of consumers would switch to a product or brand that is identified with a cause, all other things being equal.

“Breast cancer is a disease. Not a marketing opportunity. This is wrong,” says breast cancer patient Jeanne Sather, author of the blog The Assertive Cancer Patient.

Companies may also be guilty of “pink washing.” American watchdog group Breast Cancer Action defines pinkwashing as a company manufacturing products that may cause breast cancer while simultaneously promoting breast cancer fundraising. These pinkwashing companies greatly benefit from the fact that much of the effort in combating breast cancer is focused on diagnosis and cure—not on prevention or inquiries into environmental causes of the disease.

The fact that prevention is not a main focus is part of why breast cancer appeals to companies looking to engage in cause-related marketing. If prevention were a focus, breast cancer campaigns would be partly about pollutants, additives and growth hormones in our food, inadequate research and inadequate labeling and consumer information, etc – not issues that attract sponsors.

Companies are also drawn to breast cancer related marketing because it is a disease in which there is no presumption that the sufferer somehow brought it on themselves, as there can be with some other diseases. The cause is not political—it allows for companies to communicate that they are women-friendly, without being labeled activist. And of course, breasts have an image linked to sex as well as motherhood.

In her book Pink Ribbons Inc., Samantha King points out that “it’s unlikely that the battle against breast cancer will be won so long as it is approached as a single-issue problem that is unrelated to other health conditions or to broader social issues. Large, corporate-funded, single-issue foundations have come to dominate health advocacy and, as a result, questions related to universal healthcare, discrimination, or the impact of the environment on disease have been pushed to the margins.”

Think Before You Pink says the Breast Cancer Action group, to make people aware of these goings on. It recommends that, before we buy a product with a pink ribbon on it, that we ask how much money actually goes toward breast cancer programs and what is the company doing to assure that its products are not contributing to the breast cancer epidemic. The campaign has succeeded in getting some companies to remove cancer-linked additives to some cosmetics and the cancer-linked synthetic growth hormone from some yogurts - including pink-lidded yogurt, which was being sold to raise money for breast cancer but was made with dairy stimulated with the carcinogenic hormone.

There are wonderful initiatives supporting the important work relating to breast cancer. But we need to examine how easily we buy into supporting the fight against breast cancer through consumer culture. We need to work to not only find a cure, but to work toward prevention and stop allowing companies to pinkwash their carcinogenic products. We need to include men who not only can develop the disease themselves – two men died of breast cancer in New Brunswick in 2007 - but who suffer with and support their mothers, partners, sisters who are battling it. We need to include men and not merely try to briefly capture their interest through condescending sexualized awareness.

To quote cancer survivor Barbara Ehrenreich, we can’t just “slap on a pink ribbon, call it a day.”

Elsie Hambrook is Chairperson of the New Brunswick Advisory Council on the Status of Women.

 French text.

 New Brunswick Advisory Council on the Status of Women Website

On line in Sisyphe, March 2010

Elsie Hambrook, Chairperson of the New Brunswick Advisory Council on the Status of Women

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