As pretty much everyone knows, October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. The color pink can be found everywhere, the isles of our stores, the backgrounds of websites, the white house and even the NFL. You can get virtually anything in the color pink to support raising awareness for breast cancer. But have you ever stopped to wonder what good “raising awareness” does? Or where your money is going when you buy that pink kitchenaid mixer? What exactly is being researched and is your money going to support a product that is linked to breast cancer? These are all questions that Samantha King asks in her book Pink Ribbons, Inc.: Breast Cancer and Politics of Philanthropy.In 2011 Léa Pool made a documentary featuring King’s research and her book. This last week I was finally able to watch it. The follow is part one of my take on the documentary, what I took away, the “pink ribbon culture,” and some add-ons from outside sources/experiences. Basically a mash-up.
**Spoiler Warning: If you plan on watching this film do so now then come back and read the rest**
The documentary itself occasionally felt a little disjointed and could have flowed better from one scene/topic to the next. I also wish that it would have shared a little more about the history of the Breast Cancer Awareness movement. There was a section where is spliced back and forth from shots of the past to the present. It wasn’t clear what was going on other than it was showing the contrast of marches versus the current onslaught of pink run/walk/jog/shop for the cure. The film was also not very objective, it had a very clear agenda it was pushing, but you have to admire the straightforwardness and honesty in presenting its case against the current breast cancer culture. Overall I felt that the film was fairly well done and informative. I would definitely recommend seeing it and if you don’t have Netflix, I’d even recommend getting the free trial to watch it.
Since the film missed out on some of the history here’s what I found. Breast cancer used to be somewhat taboo to discuss, especially your breast cancer if you were unfortunate enough to be diagnosed with the disease. In 1974, First Lady Betty Ford was the first women to speak publicly about her diagnosis. From there it was a chain reaction of outrage, advocacy, and support for women to speak out and to talk to one another about their experiences. Women began to learn more about it and to get mammograms. They fought for it to be recognized as a problem and for there to be different, better options other than an automatic radical mastectomy. You don’t have to hide it, or be ashamed of it, was the main message. In 1991 the National Breast Cancer Coalition was formed. They pushed for breast cancer to become a national priority (http://www.healthcentral.com/breast-cancer/c/4535/15438/lesson).
Breast Cancer Awareness Month is a different story. This was started by a public relations expert at AstraZeneca in the 80’s when it was the largest pharmaceutical company in the world. According to the film this was done to encourage women to get mammograms. In doing so, they make more money and therefore benefit by the increased numbers of women getting screened. From there cost-marketing capitalism took over. Corporations learned that all they had to do was associate with a cause people cared about and their sales would increase. Women are known to make more of the buying decisions and are more likely to pay more if it’s “going to a good cause.” Breast cancer is the poster child for such cause related marketing campaigns. And people get to say breast out loud, on public television.
The Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure and Avon Foundation for Women were really the spear-headers for the mainstream breast cancer culture. They created the momentum for others to jump on the bandwagon. Unfortunately these mainstream players have jumped into bed with corporations. They have to “sell the disease” or risk alienating their customers. So, they find more and more innovative ways to tie to the cause.
One example in the film was Yoplait and their lid campaign. For every lid off of Yoplait yogurt that was mailed back the company would donate 10 cents to research. But think about it, if you ate one container of yogurt a day for a month and mailed in the lid Yoplait would be donating $3.00. $3.00? Might as well just write a check if you want to donate money. Another example is the NFL. When they went through a bit of a character crisis and were looking to rehabilitate their image they went pink. They found out that they had more women viewers than they originally thought and voilà pink cleats and sweat bands emerge.
These companies are exploiting cancer to boost their profits. They are exploiting the desire to support a good cause and they are exploiting the love people have for dear ones affected by this disease. It’s disgusting really.
Stay tuned for part two where I will break down specific problems I see with the mainstream breast cancer movement, other than what I’ve mentioned above.
UPDATE: Read the second half of this post here.