Komen Continues to be Tone Deaf and Color Blind: Pink Was Never the Problem

Pink promotions and bad puns permeate October, during Breast Cancer Industry Month. Each year I think we’ve seen it all and it can’t possibly get worse — until it does.

This October I was jolted mid-month by a new offensive marketing campaign that was so bad, at first I thought it was a spoof. Two giant pink soda cans, emblazoned with curving U’s that suggest smiling breasts, lift and come together in a gif, while the words “putting our breast foot forward” hover in effervescent bubbles. Another version of the promotion reads, “using our cans for good,” while cheerfully commanding “scan your cans.”

Bubly Sparkling Water has partnered with Susan G. Komen, the pioneer of corporate cause marketing and — not coincidentally — the world’s largest breast cancer charity, in this tasteless campaign. Like so many cause marketing campaigns designed to push products rather than advance public health, this one simultaneously titillates and trivializes the disease. It also pushes screening without mentioning that for around 20% of women, mammograms result in unnecessary and even harmful treatment. But that message wouldn’t sell Bubly’s (a subsidiary of Pepsi Co) beverages.

Breast cancer awareness has become a breast cancer industry, as corporations build their brands and customer loyalty by telling us how much they care about the disease. And when breast cancer is commodified, it’s also made palatable: to sell their pink ribbon products, marketers sell us cheerful stories and simple “solutions.”

But after more than twenty five years of aggressive pink ribbon promotions and awareness campaigns, there is far too little to show for all the money spent in the name of breast cancer. The number of people who die from the disease has hardly changed since the first pink ribbon products were introduced in 1992. Instead of lives saved or the cure we’ve been promised, a powerful, self-perpetuating juggernaut has emerged.

The beneficiary of many of these pink ribbon dollars was once considered a sterling brand itself, but Komen has fallen out of favor in recent years. Widespread criticism of Komen has included the fact that only 19% of funds go to research; a near refusal to acknowledge environmental causes of breast cancer; indiscriminate partnerships with corporations, including some that contribute to breast cancer risk; the high salary of Komen’s founder, Nancy Brinker; years spent aggressively suing anyone using the phrase “For The Cure”; the exclusion of the metastatic community; their infamous decision to defund Planned Parenthood; and much, much more.

And Susan G. Komen, the chief purveyor of all things pink, seems to think that the solution to criticism about their funding priorities and tone deaf marketing campaigns is to announce they are now “more than pink.”

Of course, the problem was never simply the color pink. The problem is the way Komen has used pink — and the specific shade of pink that Komen trademarked — to cover up the realities of breast cancer and to distract from desperately needed system change.

Since 2002, Breast Cancer Action, the organization that I run, has been encouraging people to Think Before You Pink® in response to the number of pink ribbon promotions that flood the marketplace every October. If the problem were just the color pink, we could have started a “Pink Stinks” campaign and simply tell people not to buy pink products. But the problem isn’t the color pink itself; it’s the exploitation of the disease for profit and the steadfast defense of the status quo that is producing the epidemic.

Any color can be deployed for campaigns to cover up the dark reality of business practices that increase the risk of breast cancer. Komen’s new “more than pink” mantra is implicit acknowledgment of the harm they’ve done to their own brand by putting marketing over meaningful action. But in the end, it’s just another marketing slogan by the world’s largest breast cancer charity that serves as the lynchpin of the breast cancer industry.

When October rolls around every year and the pink ribbon promotions begin, rather than welcoming the widespread “awareness,” many people in the breast cancer community are dismayed that corporations are profiting off our concern about breast cancer to make a profit, and covering up the ugly reality of the disease in the process. All that pink noise is drowning out the voices of people most affected by breast cancer.

Despite Komen’s claims to be “more than pink,” they’re showing their true colors with more of the same tone deaf promotions. For anyone living with breast cancer or who has supported a loved one through a diagnosis, the disconnect between the cheerful, feminine, positivity of pink and the gruesome reality of the disease can feel like an especially cruel form of gaslighting.

Karuna Jaggar is the executive director of Breast Cancer Action, a national education and activist nonprofit organization.

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