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Sunday, September 26, 2021

Column: Pinkwashing

Sex & Society

In 1970, one out of every 10 women in the U.S. was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Today, it is one in eight.

This already alarming figure is made even more frightening by an apparent lack of progress. Though mortality rates from breast cancer have dropped since the ‘70s, the number of new cases is rising — and fast.

Still, the risk of breast cancer isn’t an easy thing to forget. Pink ribbons adorn the hats of Band-uh members, pink uniforms bedeck our sports teams, and pink products fill the shelves of every supermarket and department store imaginable.

It would appear that breast cancer has become, dare I say it, trendy.

And this really comes as no surprise. Breasts are symbols of femininity, motherhood and — you guessed it — sexuality.

This is not to say awareness is inherently bad. In the 1980s, the stigma attached to female sexuality made breast cancer a hush-hush issue. Awareness programs lifted the taboo, and in so doing raised federal funding and spread knowledge about early detection.

Today, however, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who isn’t “aware” of breast cancer. Awareness should be a means to an end, but is too often being treated as the end itself.

In many of its manifestations, the breast cancer movement has lost its focus, and women’s lives are taking a backseat to the money-making machine that is cause-marketing.

Suddenly, “sex sells” has become a bit more disturbing.

Breast cancer is an attractive cause because it is low-risk and deals with a “sexy” body part. Corporations would much rather support breast cancer than, say, AIDS or lung cancer, because it is not tied to controversial “lifestyle choices,” has an easily recognizable brand and can integrate lots of pretty models in push-up bras.

It is unsurprising, then, that big business would abuse this positive association, exploiting both the fear and the hope of consumers for profit.

In the ‘90s, football players were involved in a slew of domestic violence and sexual assault cases, and the NFL needed a way to improve its image. So, they went pink. Pink gloves, pink cleats, pink sweat towels, pink whistles, pink fields … all while donating very little to the actual cause.

Similarly, Ford began the Warriors in Pink campaign to counter bad publicity after they’d laid off tens of thousands of people (who ironically also lost health insurance).

Other companies spend more on pink advertising than on actual donations. In 2005, for example, 3M spent $500,000 promoting pink ribbon Post-It notes. Even though customers bought almost twice the expected amount of notes, the donation was still $200,000 short of the money they’d spent on ads. American Express and Eureka vacuums were caught in similar situations.

Yoplait’s hypocritical “Save the Lid” promotion asked people to send in their used yogurt lids for a 10-cent donation to breast cancer research. At the same time, their manufacturer was using milk that contained bovine growth hormone (rBST), a substance that had already been banned in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Israel and the entire European Union because of its ties to breast cancer.

Even campaigns which have no ties to big corporations are inappropriately exploiting the sexuality of breasts. Bracelets and T-shirts bearing silly phrases like “Save the Ta-Ta’s” and “I Heart Boobies” may seem harmless, but are perpetuating the idea that breast cancer is tragic because it affects breasts, not because it affects women. According to these slogans, a woman who has undergone a double mastectomy really has nothing left to save.

Speaking of language, the Susan G. Komen Foundation has spent over 1 million dollars suing other charities for using the phrase “for the cure.” This emphasis on “curing” breast cancer is another pitfall influenced by money. Increasing survival time for patients is better for marketing, so the longer process of finding the cause receives only 3 to 5 percent of cancer research funds.

Though there is still value in the hope, positivity and awareness perpetuated by “pink ribbon culture,” we need to beware complacency. Gestures of “slactivitsm” like posting your bra color on Facebook may feel good, but do no good on their own. We must move beyond awareness and toward activism, and start seeing breast cancer for what it is: a serious disease, not a chic marketing opportunity.

MARISA MASSARA encourages you to check out BCAction.org to find out more about prevention research and pinkwashing. She can be reached at mvmassara@ucdavis.edu.

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