(This piece is two years old now. But the message is still the same. ~ L. )
The Marketing of Breast Cancer in America
One bright blue Saturday morning this October, on my way home from an assignment, I made a left turn into a throng of pink, and came to a stop. On the previous blocks I had seen a few groups of people, two or three or five, dressed in pink caps, or pink t-shirts. I hadn’t thought much of it. It’s October after all, Breast Cancer Awareness month, there’s a lot of pink about. But here on the long stretch of Monument Avenue, the pink undulates like a vast sea before me. Muttering to myself about how poorly the Dayton media alerts us to these things, I settle in to wait.
Pink sneakers, pink wigs, pink bandanas, pink balloons. A number of women carry pink long-stemmed roses. One scowling ginger-haired boy is bedecked with a pink plastic lei. There are dogs wearing pink dresses, and men in pink sweatshirts proclaiming “Real Men Wear Pink.” (I also saw the somewhat crass “Don’t let cancer steal second base.”) Pink jackets, pink sweaters, pink feather boas.
“Pink, it’s my new obsession,” I thought, hearing the Aerosmith song in my head. “Pink, it’s not even a question.” But this army of pink from the blush of a petal to the violence of fuschia, this has nothing to do with that. This, this is all about one of the most successful sales campaigns of all time: the marketing of breast cancer.
Rare is the person who hasn’t contributed in at least some small way to raising money for breast cancer awareness. We’ve bought yogurt with pink lids. We’ve bought the t-shirt. We’ve bought a pink bucket of fried chicken. A few weeks ago I made my profile photo pink on a social networking site, because being one of the half a million people that did so would increase a Canadian telecommunications company’s donation to the Susan G. Komen Foundation for the Cure to $200,000.
Breast cancer is such an easy cause to support. We think of breast cancer and we think of mothers, wives, grandmothers, sisters, daughters who might be (or are, or were) afflicted with this scourge. In truth men get breast cancer too. In 2005, 1700 men in America were diagnosed and given that the breast cancer survival rates are about equal among the sexes, more than 300 men died. Breast cancer is free of those pesky lifestyle questions that tend to dog causes like AIDS and lung cancer. People ask you and you give. The amount we’ve given collectively and as taxpayers is staggering.
One question nags at me as I thread my way through the pink. What about the other cancers? My father died of laryngeal cancer. Is there a color for that? (The answer is: not really.) What about lung cancer victims? What about people suffering from colon cancer? Or leukemia? Or cancer of the pancreas? Where is their march, where are the yogurts and sneakers and blenders I can buy to support fundraising for them? When I got home I did some reading.
Cancer of all types accounts for about half a million deaths a year in the United States. That’s considerably less than the number of people who die from heart disease (616,067 the last time the Center for Disease Control counted.) The American Heart Association has seized their own month (February) and color (red) but it is has failed to saturate popular culture in quite the same way. When we see a red t-shirt or hat, we might be more apt to think “Red Sox” or “Ohio State;” but when we see pink garb, we see breast cancer.
Every year 205,000 people are diagnosed with breast cancer and 40,000 will die. That’s a mortality rate of about 19 percent. And if someone you love, or you yourself is one of those people, well that’s at least one too many. Consider for a moment some of these other deaths: colon cancer will claim 48,000 (with a mortality rate of 45 percent). 57,000 women will die from genital system cancers, of which ovarian cancer is the most pernicious, claiming 76 percent of those diagnosed. 77 percent of the 17,000 people diagnosed with a brain tumor will leave us this year. The 30,000 people that die from pancreatic cancer represent 98 percent of those diagnosed. Even with a poster boy like Patrick Swayze, the most deadly cancer there is cannot get the traction that the breast cancer industry enjoys.
The cancer that claims the most Americans every year is, hands down, lung cancer. Although there are fewer lung cancer diagnoses than breast cancer diagnoses, there are four times the number of dead; 160,000 people annually. A hundred and sixty thousand people! That’s the population of my fair city. Every year.
Among the interminable list of those we’ve lost to lung cancer are Walt Disney, Nat King Cole, Steve McQueen, Johnny Carson, Yul Brynner, Humphrey Bogart, Edward R. Murrow, Sammy Davis Jr., Duke Ellington, George Harrison, Louie Armstrong, Ed Sullivan, Lucille Ball, Count Basie , Spencer Tracy, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Harry Reasoner, Peter Jennings. And my old friend Bobby Block’s marvelous wife, Donna. And my dear friend Noelle’s beloved father, Dan Sullivan, who succumbed to lung cancer secondary to Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
Noelle’s father (like Dana Reeve, 44 and Andy Kauffman, 35) was one of the 17,000 people who die from lung cancer every year in this country who never, ever smoked. Where is their parade? Where can I buy a colored ribbon magnet for my car?
Other prominent causes of death in the U.S. include stroke (135,000) respiratory illnesses (like emphysema and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, 128,000) Alzheimer’s disease (75,000) diabetes (71,000) and the flu (53,000) none of which enjoys the kind of media attention and generous funding that breast cancer does.
The National Cancer Institute is one of the eleven agencies of the National Institutes for Health, a division of the US Department of Health and Human Services. The N.I.H. allocates approximately 2.5 billion dollars a year towards research for the treatment of heart disease. The N.C.I. funds six billion dollars a year towards cancer research. So, even though twenty percent more Americans die of heart disease, it gets less than half the funding cancer does.
In a 2008 piece for the New York Times, Tamara Parker Pope delineated the amounts that NCI spent “per diagnosis” and “per death” in the most prevalent cancers. Prostate cancer got one of the smallest amounts per diagnosis, a mere $1318. But because the prognosis of prostate cancer is generally not fatal, the amount is a whopping $11,298 per death. Colon cancer research gets $2361 per diagnosis, or $4,566 per death. Pancreatic cancer, reflecting its sad death-sentence nature, gets $2297 per diagnosis, which works out to $2200 per death. Lung cancer (remember 160,000 deaths a year) gets the worst funding of all– $1,518 per diagnosis, $1,630 per death.
And breast cancer? Breast cancer’s allocation is $2596 per diagnosis, or $13,452 per death. The total amount of funding NCI provides to finding effective treatment of lung cancer is $261 million dollars a year. The total amount they provide for finding effective treatment of breast cancer is $538 million dollars.
This is not the money from the pink sneakers or the walk-a-thons or “DVDs for the Cure.” This is money collected from taxpayers to be allocated by the federal government. Given that this is government funding, it might be reasonable to suppose that it be allocated in accordance with the number of people afflicted by type of cancer. It’s not. Perhaps it is allocated by the deadliness of the particular cancer? Nope. It’s allocated on the basis of the strongest lobbying efforts. There’s something morally wrong with that.
Then there’s the money from all the other sources, the “pink” money. The money from the Canadian telephone company, from the sales of pink Snuggies, pink Barbies, pink golf clubs, pink m & ms, tickets on Delta’s pink Boeing 747.
The revenue stream for the Susan G. Komen Foundation for the Cure in 2009 was $298,685,007. (Or about $7,467 per death.) Since 1982 they have funneled tens of billions (that’s with a “b”) into breast cancer research and awareness. Do they have any answers yet? The sad truth is no. Though the Centers for Disease Control reports a one percent downturn in both cancer diagnosis and deaths across the board, there has not been any significant improvement made in the area of breast health.
Though many people know the name “Susan G. Komen,” (and have supported the organization, either intentionally or unwittingly), most couldn’t tell you who she is or was.
Diagnosed with breast cancer in 1977 at the age of 33, Susan Komen died three years later. Her younger sister, Nancy Goodman Brinker launched the foundation in her sister’s memory in 1982. On the 25th anniversary of the organization, the name was changed to “Susan G. Komen Foundation for the Cure,” and adopted the explicit (and utterly unattainable) mission to “end breast cancer forever.” Such a pie-in-the-sky goal would seem to indicate a basic lack of understanding of the mechanism of any cancer. They might as well express a desire to farm unicorns.
But their supposedly naïve expressed goal to “end breast cancer forever” is actually something far more cynical. They know that there will be no “ending breast cancer forever.” By hoisting such a lofty and impossible goal they can go on raising money forever, and they want to because as it turns out the commercialization of breast cancer research is very big business.
It used to be that October shopping meant autumnal colors, or orange and black for Halloween. Not any more. Take a look down the cosmetics aisle of any drugstore and what do you see? Pink. There are pink tennis balls (promising 15 cents per can donation to “a breast cancer research organization.”). There are Lean Cuisine boxes sporting a printed pink ribbon. (There’s actually no donation associated with these at all. But there’s a notice on the box directing you to the Lean Cuisine website, where you can buy a pink Lean Cuisine lunch tote, and five dollars of that price goes to Susan G. Komen.) There are pink treadmills, pink appliances, NFL players in pink cleats, pink stationery, even fishing guides on the Madison river in a pink driftboat. Pink pink pink pink.
“Don’t get me started about the “pink” money,” my friend Kelinda wrote. “I left the cancer center to work in mental health . . . night and day difference in funding.”
A woman commenting on a story in the Boston Globe about the pink phenomenon wrote: “The pink ribbon is one thing, but pink everything is way, way too much. My mother survived with breast cancer for 12 years and if I thought for one minute that a pink blender would have helped her cause I would have gone out in a heartbeat and bought one. But it doesn’t help the patient, only the corporation.”
There’s the rub. Corporations are making a lot of money off of breast cancer, and as a woman in a Toronto Globe and Mail said “It’s the commercialization of my disease.” Breast cancer research groups and activists have coined the term “pinkwashing” to apply to corporations that they feel are trying to boost their own image through breast cancer fundraising, even though they manufacture products that may (or may not) contribute to the incidence of breast cancer. Considered “pinkwashing” are BMW’s one-dollar-donation-per-test-drive (because cars contribute to air pollution) the pink branding of many cosmetic companies (because wearing makeup can be harmful to your health) and Kentucky Fried Chicken’s pink bucket campaign, in which Yum! Brands donated fifty cents per pink bucket.
The chief objection to the KFC fundraising seemed to center on the concern that eating fried chicken isn’t healthy, and that given the location of many KFC restaurants in low-income areas that Yum! Brands was promoting unhealthy eating on the back of breast cancer awareness. (Gee, maybe they should have been raising money for heart disease. That seems like a more direct link.)
However, it is important to note that through this campaign Yum! Brands made atwo million dollar donation to Susan G. Komen for the Cure. (And they sold about sixty million dollars worth of chicken in the process.) Talk of “pinkwashing” or not, Susan G. Komen Foundation lent their name to the promotion and they took the money, so they are as culpable as the businesses with whom they climb into bed.
Last Christmas I unwrapped a pink Cuisinart hand mixer, and my heart sank. I wanted the mixer, it wasn’t that. (I have a Kitchen-Aid stand mixer, but sometimes (like whipping cream) that’s more mixer than you need.) The Cuisinart is an excellent mixer. I absolutely hated the fact that it was pink. Even before I’d looked into how much money is funneled into breast cancer research, even when I only suspected that companies were probably making an obscene amount of money on these special pink items, they felt exploitive to me. (Cuisinart gives three percent of the purchase price to Susan G. Komen, so about two bucks for my mixer.)
I looked at that mixer in my hands and I thought about how breast cancer gets so much attention and the other cancers so little. I wondered what it would feel like to have breast cancer and see so many people making so much money off of it, and I put the mixer away deep in the back of the cupboard.
Then one day I had cause to use it, and as I was fitting the beaters, I thought about how breast cancer activism and marketing has stolen pink from us. I’ve had some great pink things. A favorite pair of lace-up leather boots, pink-striped pajamas, pink lipstick, pink peonies, pink socks, a pink mohair sweater.
Pink used to make us think flamingos and bubble gum and cotton candy. Pink should be ballet slippers and Peter Seller’s panther, pink ladies and strawberry ice cream. That’s when I decided that my pink mixer would be the pink of pink cadillacs, of baby hats, a froth of tutu, Memphis’ Pink Palace.
We can be “tickled pink,” or “in the pink.” Let us all be pinkos and let none of us get pink slips. We can grow pinks and eat at Pink’s Hot Dog stand, listen to Pink Floyd and sleep on pink sheets. (Or get our stock quotes from them.) There is summertime, with pink watermelon, your dog’s pink tongue, her pink collar. There are pink collar jobs, usually held by women.
And there’s the pink triangle. The Nazis made homosexual prisoners in concentration camps wear pink triangle badges. 15,000 pink-triangle wearing men were annihilated during the Holocaust. In the 1970s, the pink triangle was reclaimed by gay activists and re-invented as a symbol of gay pride. (As a side note, the Nazis had a wide variety of colored triangles: red for political prisoners and liberals, green for criminals, blue for foreigners, purple for Jehovah’s witnesses, black for gypsies, the mentally-ill, alcoholics, pacifists, and lesbians and yellow for Jews.)
The American Cancer Society has an official roster of colors for the various cancers, some are a little thoughtless: yellow for bladder cancer, black for melanoma, gray for brain cancer. Lung cancer doesn’t have a color, just “clear.” Clear t-shirts? No wonder they’re not marching. And pink for breast cancer.
Except that we don’t have to go along. Fight to reclaim pink, all the Crayola colors from Carnation Pink (1949) to Ultra Pink and Shocking Pink (1972) Tickle Me Pink (1993) Pink Flamingo, Piggy Pink and Pink Sherbet (1998). Don’t let your daughters grow up to think that pink means fear and fighting and chemotherapy. Sing of Little Pink Houses and dream of pink elephants. Tell your kids to turn down the P!nk CD. You can be pink with embarrassment with talk of pink canoes and pink sausages.
Give directly to charities that are important to you. Donate to heart disease research. Make a gift to fight specific cancers. Give to your local animal shelter. Spend your money to end domestic violence. Breast cancer research has already had more than its fair share of our collective wealth. We’ve been conditioned: we see pink, we think breast cancer. It doesn’t have to be so. Reclaim pink in your own life. Stop feeding the pink pig. Stop buying. Put an end to marketing of breast cancer “awareness,” end the exploitation. Cancer can’t be cured through shopping.