Grocery store aisles are glowing pink as corporations jump on the bandwagon of October's Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Products branded by pink ribbons or entirely dressed in pink for the month make it possible for consumers to caffeinate, sip soup, eat packaged foods, and then wipe their hands and blow their noses "for the cure."
We all want to end breast cancer in our lifetime. But we ought not assume that pink packaging advances that goal. In 1969, 1 in 20 American women got breast cancer. Forty years later, the incidence has risen to 1 in 8. Consumption for the cure contributes to corporate profits and income to the charities, but it does little to address the puzzle of increased incidence.
Cause-related marketing allows corporations, for a price determined by the charity, to use the charity's name and logo on approved products. That associates the corporations with the cause and stimulates sales and goodwill among customers. Some corporations donate a portion of the profits for every pink product sold, but others give no money at all. Most often, corporations give the charity an agreed upon amount of money. The corporation is then free to pocket the additional profits generated when consumers mistakenly believe that their buying results in donation.
Breast cancer charities rake in the cash, with the top 20 charities bringing in more than $1 billion annually. But what they do with that money varies widely. Some breast cancer charities spend more than 80 percent of their money on administration and fundraising.
The theme of "early detection" and reduction of risk through self-examination, exercise and lifestyle changes permeates the major breast cancer charities. This carries the mistaken implication that individual women can avoid developing breast cancer if only they learn, examine, eat and drink as they are told. All of the top breast cancer charities spend money to support "breast cancer awareness," as though we needed more awareness.
Breast cancer is not the leading cause of death among American women nor the leading cause of cancer-related deaths. But, with its ubiquitous pink products and events, it is the model for successful public relations campaigns.
What's the concerned consumer to do? Research before reaching for the pink packaging. The Better Business Bureau, Charity Navigator and GuideStar Web sites all provide ratings, warnings and tax reporting for breast cancer charities. One can sometimes find how much each corporate sponsor contributes on the breast cancer charity Web site. But financial information can rarely be found on the donor-friendly homepage.
Another approach is to decide what's motivating us to consume for the cure.
Are you interested in helping women get access to diagnostic tests and needed treatment? Contact your local cancer center. It has a foundation that provides financial assistance to local women. And, in most cases, at least 90 cents of every dollar goes to women in need.
Want to end "drive through" mastectomies? Want to ensure that survivors have lifelong access to the drugs that can prevent their breast cancer from coming back? Write your state and federal representatives about your support for policy that guarantees adequate cancer care for all.
Do you want to invest in research? Compare the kind of research that the charity funds with the kind of research that best supports the cause. Many charities funnel research money to genetic causes even though genetics accounts for no more than 10 percent of the breast cancers diagnosed today. The lion's share of research money goes to the development of breast cancer treatment.
As a person living with breast cancer, I am grateful that such treatments exist. But I am even more concerned that my stepdaughter and her friends not be the new victims of the disease. Despite the disturbing increase in incidence of the disease, research on environmental causes of breast cancer is significantly underfunded.
The best way to eradicate breast cancer in our lifetime is to find and eliminate the reasons that more women are getting it. For those who care about eradicating this preventable disease, breast cancer awareness means more than an annual parade of pink products.
Deni Elliott holds the Eleanor Poynter Jamison Chair in Media Ethics and Press Policy at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.