I hate to be the skunk at the pink garden party. But, some truths must be told about October, Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and the proliferation of pink to mark the annual event.
Thirty years ago breast cancer awareness was a grass roots movement. The pink ribbon was originally peach, designed by 68-year-old Charlotte Haley whose grandmother, sister and daughters were sufferers. Her effort to inform lawmakers and others about the need for more research funding morphed into Breast Cancer Awareness month a massively marketed national campaign.
Not surprising since National Breast Cancer Awareness Month was created by a corporation-- Astra Zeneca. It was then known as Imperial Chemical Industries and the company partnered with the American Cancer Society to promote early screening and mammography. Haley wouldn’t sell her ribbon, so in the early '90s, another company, Estee Lauder changed the color to pink, and adopted it as the official symbol of breast cancer awareness.
Pink products are now a booming huge cottage industry. T-shirts, wrist bands and key chains are on the low end of a pink explosion of expensive jewelry, sunglasses, gift baskets, even food processors. And my email box is stuffed with solicitations for pink experiences like ‘spa for a cause.’ Together these pink products and experiences raise millions in sales.
But where is all that money going? Last year the Tampa Bay Times and the Center for Investigative reporting included two breast cancer charities among its 50 worst. For example, of the $80 million raised by American Breast Cancer Foundation nearly $60 million went to overhead. Only $4 million, or 5 percent, went to the charity’s mission. Ditto for the Breast Cancer Relief Foundation-- $64 million raised, $44 million to overhead, 2 percent to the charity.
Increasingly, critics, like the organization Breast Cancer Action or BAC, want to know why there is so little to show for the billions collected over the years. Not just from the rip off artists, but from well-known efforts raising monies for research. Breast Cancer Action advocates for breast cancer survivors and legislation to support breast cancer research. The advocacy group says buyers should ‘think before they pink.’ BAC president Karuna Jagger says the fundraising stunts are “offensive” and “distasteful,” with little documentation of pink money funded research. I tested her claim recently by calling a few breast cancer research scientists to find out if pink money was part of their support. Nope. I also searched for a direct allocation line in the reports of some of the bigger fund raising groups. Still no. Mine was by no means an extensive search, but I thought it curious.
But Breast Cancer Action is even more concerned about what it describes as "pinkwashing". That’s when companies tout breast cancer awareness, and sponsor fundraising campaigns using the pink products as charitable cover. BAC points to corporations, which make products that have chemicals linked to cancer.
Another example: The NFL. Well before its latest domestic violence scandals, the NFL has sponsored splashy October campaigns featuring pro football players in pink helmets. Plus, Business Insider reports just 8 percent of the profits for the leagues’ sale of pink footballs and bracelets goes to cancer research.
No question. Many corporations, which have created pink products, and sponsored activities, have done much to make breast cancer awareness a well-recognized issue. But these days Breast Cancer Awareness Month seems to me to be less focused on the women who are survivors or potential cancer sufferers. It’s more about pink commerce. And meanwhile, women keep dying.
Callie Crossley is the host of Under the Radar with Callie Crossley.