Over the past two decades, an informal alliance of breast cancer foundations and large corporations has achieved what would have once been unimaginable: The transformation of a stigmatized disease into a multimillion-dollar marketing tool through which commodities ranging from pink frying pans to handguns have been sold to well-intentioned consumers in the name of raising money for research and education. When critics such as myself question cause related marketing campaigns, we are usually told that that it is a “win win” situation: Charities receive much-needed income and an opportunity to educate the public, while corporations improve their bottom line and enhance their image by differentiating their brands from those of their competitors. But how much money is actually accrued through such promotions? How is that money spent? And of what, exactly, is the public taught to be aware? More fundamentally, what vision of society and approach to those in need does breast cancer marketing promote? And what social, economic, and environmental problems does it perpetuate?
My research suggests that the financial gains of breast cancer marketing campaigns for their ostensible beneficiaries are ambiguous and hard to track. The educational components of these efforts are generally superficial, if not misleading. Most crucially, these campaigns promote the idea that social problems are best dealt with individually and through the market place, rather than collectively and in ways that question the role of consumer capitalism in creating inequalities in the first instance. In encouraging citizens to shop for a cause, breast cancer marketing helps conceal the pernicious effects of overconsumption on the environment and on social and economic well-being more generally.
There is no denying that, taken collectively, breast cancer marketing campaigns have raised considerable money over the past three decades. In 2011 alone, the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation raised approximately $50 million through such partnerships and the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation $1.16 million. The overall financial impact remains nebulous, however. Regardless of the revenue they may generate, such campaigns also cost corporations and nonprofits money. Companies are usually reluctant to reveal how much they spend on marketing these products or the amount of the exclusive license fees they pay to foundations to use their names in the promotion. IEG Inc., a company that tracks cause marketing in the U.S., estimated that corporations spent approximately $1.3 billion on cause related marketing in 2006 (Eikenberry, 2009). Perhaps more worrying is the claim that nonprofit organizations spend roughly $7.6 billion per year on marketing and public relations (Chong, 2010). If $9 billion is spent annually on persuading consumers to buy cause related products, it seems reasonable to expect a strong and unambiguous return on this investment.
Supporters of breast cancer marketing point to the numerous community service programs, biomedical research projects, and educational opportunities that have received funds through this approach as evidence of its positive impact. There is no doubt that some of the money from campaigns flows out of corporations, through the large and wealthy foundations they tend to partner with, and into the lives of those for whom the funds are intended. But companies are rarely explicit about the fact that a customer’s purchase will make no difference to the cause if the maximum promised amount has already been reached, in which case the money from their well-intentioned purchase stays firmly within the company’s coffers.
Given the popularity of partnerships between breast cancer foundations and oil and gas companies, car manufacturers, and cosmetics merchants, it should come as no surprise that the research agenda has been skewed away from projects focused on primary prevention and the environmental causes of the disease and towards projects focused on more optimistic-sounding avenues like “genetic breakthroughs” and “miracle drugs.” Sadly, those avenues have not thus far lived up to expectations as incidence and mortality rates for breast cancer remain stubbornly high. In the meantime, corporations and their foundation partners continue to encourage consumers to help end breast cancer by purchasing products (for example, cosmetics containing parabens or cars that produce polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) that may in fact be linked to the disease.
When confronted with concerns about the financial viability of breast cancer marketing, supporters often argue that regardless of how much money is raised or where that money goes, campaigns help build awareness of their respective causes. But what does awareness actually mean? That we must learn that breast cancer exists? Or that we are all at risk for such misfortune? There is not much more that can be said in the five to ten words that usually comprise contemporary marketing slogans and messages.
When breast cancer campaigns do venture into specifics, awareness usually means preaching the benefits of early detection through mammograms. Although this approach might prompt people to discover if they already have the disease, this selective brand of awareness asks people to take personal responsibility for fending it off, while ignoring more difficult questions related to what might be done to stop it at its source. Hyperawareness has other worrisome effects too: research suggests that women now overestimate their risk of breast cancer while underestimating their risk of other conditions—heart disease, lung cancer, or stroke—that are more likely to kill them (Fagerlin et al., 2005). As a result, growing numbers of women are taking up drastic interventions such as prophylactic double mastectomies in an effort to prevent an occurrence of the disease (Portschy & Tuttle, 2013).
The emergence of the pink ribbon industry is part of a broader societal shift in which participation in the consumer market place, and individual and corporate giving, are promoted as morally and economically viable and preferable means through which to respond to societal needs, in place of the state’s role in alleviating the negative effects of capitalism. Cause marketing is a perfect tool for realizing a vision of a society unfettered by social programs. It does not encourage citizens to think about “the public good” or to contemplate the role of consumer capitalism in creating the need for charity in the first place. Indeed, a variety of research projects have shown that if an individual purchases a cause marketing product, they are less likely to think collectively or to make direct donations to nonprofits; they may also become desensitized to other social needs, particularly those that are less marketable than breast cancer (for example, heart disease or poverty) (Flaherty and Diamond, 1999; Krishna, 2011; Lichenstein et al. 2004). Rather than alleviating social problems, then, cause marketing might best be understood to mask or even perpetuate them if the example of marketing toxic products through breast cancer awareness gives any indication.
Does the recent fallout over the Komen Foundation’s decision to defund women’s healthcare provider Planned Parenthood suggest that the sheen is slowly fading on the pink ribbon machine, at least in the U.S.? A recent drop in donations and in attendance at their events certainly suggests this is the case, but what about the public’s perspective on cause marketing as a way to raise money for health concerns more generally? The last few years have seen increasing debate about this phenomenon (Krishna, 2011; Singer, 2011), but as long as cause marketing continues to move products off shelves, corporations will continue to use it as a strategy. Critics could simply persuade consumers to change their purchasing habits, or push corporations to improve the payouts from their cause marketing campaigns, but these changes would leave bigger questions related to how health research, education, and services should be funded. Instead, it may be time to more directly, and explicitly, question the role of foundations and charities in the problematic practices of cause marketing. If nonprofits are to contribute to real social change, they are going to have to question how they relate to big business. A move away from corporate partnerships might allow them to fund more transformative projects while also relieving consumers of the myth that the benefits of cause marketing outweigh the costs.
Chong, R. (2010, January 4). Cause-related marketing: Just plain ol’ marketing. Huffington Post. Retrieved January 17, 2012, from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rachael-chong/cause-related-marketing-j_b_409633.html
Eikenberry, A. (2009, Summer). The hidden costs of cause marketing. Stanford Social Innovation Review, 17. Retrieved on January 17, 2012, from http://www.ssireview.org/articles/entry/the_hidden_costs_of_cause_marketing
Fagerlin, A., Zikmund-Fisher, B. J. & Ubel, P. A. (2005, June). How making a risk estimate can change the feel of that risk: shifting attitudes toward breast cancer risk in a general public survey. Patient Education and Counseling, 57 (3), 294-299.
Flaherty, K. & Diamond, W. (1999). The impact of consumers’ mental budgeting on the effectiveness of cause-related marketing. American Marketing Association Conference Proceedings, 10, 151-52.
Krishna, A. (2011, October 15). Philanthropy and marketing. Toronto Star. Retrieved on January 17, 2012, from http://www.thestar.com/opinion/editorialopinion/article/1070419–philanthropy-and-marketing
Lichenstein, D.R., Drumwright, M.E., & Braig, B.M. (2004). The effect of corporate social responsibility on customer donations to McLaughlin, C.C., Lillqujist, P.P., & Edge, S.B. (2009). Surveillance of prophylactic mastectomy: trends in use from 1995 through 2005. Cancer, 115(23), 5404-12.
Singer, N. (2011, October 15). In the breast cancer fight, the pinking of America. New York Times. Retrieved on January 17, 2012, from http://www.nytimes.com/a2011/10/16/business/in-the-breast-cancer-fight-the-pinking-of-america.html?pagewanted=all
Portschy P. & Tuttle, R. (2013). Rise of mastectomy. Journal of Surgical Oncology, 107, 563-564.
Samantha King is Associate Professor of Kinesiology and Health Studies at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario where she researches and teaches the sociology of health, sport, and the body. Her book, Pink Ribbons, Inc: Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy (Minnesota, 2006), is the subject of a National Film Board documentary film by the same name. She is currently working on a project about prescription painkillers in Canadian culture.