April 29, 2013 by Tamara Piety
There was a very disturbing article in yesterday’s New York Times Magazine, “Our Feel-Good War on Breast Cancer.” It discussed some of the way in which the publicizing efforts may not be doing what we hope. This paragraph in particular struck me.
Before the pink ribbon, awareness as an end in itself was not the default goal for health-related causes. Now you’d be hard-pressed to find a major illness without a logo, a wearable ornament and a roster of consumer-product tie-ins. ….. “These campaigns all have a similar superficiality in terms of the response they require from the public,” said Samantha King, associate professor of kinesiology and health at Queen’s University in Ontario and author of”Pink Ribbons, Inc.” “They’re divorced from any critique of health care policy or the politics of funding biomedical research. They reinforce a single-issue competitive model of fund-raising. And they whitewash illness: we’re made ‘aware’ of a disease yet totally removed from the challenging and often devastating realities of its sufferers.(emphasis added)
Indeed. This is perhaps what a marketing mindset generates – awareness and public concern, the ability to raise funds becomes the “solution,” the definition of success. Yet if success is measured by better outcomes for patients this article suggests that we haven’t gone as far as all those pink products would have us suggest. But it does offer commercial opportunities. As the article notes:
With its dozens of races “for the cure” and some 200 corporate partnerships, it [Komen] may be the most successful charity ever at branding a disease; its relentless marketing has made the pink ribbon one of the most recognized logos of our time. The ribbon has come to symbolize both fear of the disease and the hope it can be defeated. It’s a badge of courage for the afflicted, an expression of solidarity by the concerned. It promises continual progress toward a cure through donations, races, volunteerism. It indicates community. And it offers corporations a seemingly fail-safe way to signal good will toward women, even if, in a practice critics call “pinkwashing,” the products they produce are linked to the disease or other threats to public health. Having football teams don rose-colored cleats, for instance, can counteract bad press over how the N.F.L. handles accusations against players of rape or domestic violence. Chevron’s donations to California Komen affiliates may help deflect what Cal OSHA called its “willful violations” of safety that led to a huge refinery fire last year in a Bay Area neighborhood”
I have no doubt that the vast majority of these efforts are well meaning and some are undoubtedly contributing to success at saving some lives. But given the challenges outlined in this article, “pinkwashing” seems a particularly distasteful practice.