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The surprising story of the Pink Ribbon

October is Breast Cancer Awareness month, so we decided to share with you a sequence of articles about this topic. Breast cancer is the most frequent cancer and the most common cause of death among women. It is a global public health problem with consequences also on a socio economic level. If numbers increase in the same manner as in the present, it is estimated that by 2050 there will be 3.2 new million cases per year.

In the last weeks we talked about what the risk factors of developing breast cancer are, the methods how breast cancer can be diagnosed, and the current available treatments.

In this last article we want to raise awareness about the present marketing campaigns that focus on breast cancer, share with you the pink ribbon symbolism and how it all started.

The history of the pink ribbon

The pink ribbon is one of the most popular and recognized symbols in the world. Over the years the pink ribbon has become a synonym of strength, hope, responsibility for breast cancer but also an excuse for cause-related marketing.

But the pink ribbon isn’t the only ribbon that supports a cause. Ribbons have been used since centuries, supporting many causes such as quitting alcohol (white ribbon), freeing the American hostages held by Iran (yellow ribbon) or to increase awareness of the AIDS pandemic (red ribbon).

In 1990, Charlotte Haley, a breast cancer survivor, wanted to increase awareness about the low budget that was allocated for the research on breast cancer. She did this by handing out glued peach-colored ribbon cards that stated that only 5% of the National Institute of Health of US budget was used for breast cancer prevention. As Charlotte sent the card to many women, including influential and powerful ones, the executives of Estee Lauder and Self magazine came up with the idea of using this ribbon as a symbol for the Breast Cancer Awareness month in October 1991. But Charlotte did not want to work with them, as she considered them to be too corporate and commercial. Because of this disagreement Estee Lauder changed the color of the ribbon to the now popular pink and the company distributed the pink ribbon in all their cosmetics stores as a way to support breast cancer awareness. And like that, the pink ribbon became the mirror of happiness and optimism of survivors that take pride in their winning battle.

Studies suggest that this pink ribbon has a bigger influence than we thought, as it gives people a way they can identify and accept breast cancer without the visuals of a tumor, pain and side effects.

Breast Cancer Awareness campaigns

Since Estee Lauder’s successful campaign, many other companies have adopted the pink ribbon symbol for profit and non-profit causes that aimed to increase awareness about breast cancer. The awareness was further amplified thanks to public figures openly discussing their breast cancer diagnosis. Around that time, the perception of breast cancer changed, from a stigmatized and individual disease to a neglected public health concern that needed to be publicly debated. Simultaneously it changed the perception of women that experienced breast cancer. They were no longer seen as a patient but as a survivor. This movement was started by Betty Ford in 1970, and was followed by other celebrities such as Gloria Steinem, Suzzane Somer, Sheryl Crow, Melissa Etheridge and continues to attract other public figures such as Kylie Minogue, Christina Applegate, Cynthia Nixon and many others.

In 1975, Rose Kushner’s “Breast Cancer: A personal History and Investigative Report” criticized the practice of performing mastectomy without the consent of the patient. This publication represented a turning point in the history of breast cancer as it fueled numerous campaigns to appear and promote the right of informed consent laws. As a result, in 1986, the National Alliance of Breast Cancer Organization was formed with the purpose of facilitating access to information regarding breast cancer and assistance to women in need.

Another powerful campaign started in 1998, when First Lady Hillary Clinton along with the executives of the US post service revealed the Breast Cancer Research Stamp. The value of this stamp, 40 cents, was going into the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and Medical Research Program of the Department of Defense (DOD). In 3 years $23 million was gathered.

Another milestone in our recent history was achieved thanks to Maren Klawiter, who in 2000 showed the connection between disease destigmatization, activism and medical management of breast cancer. As in the 80’s and 90’s the number of breast cancer screening increased, so did the safe spaces in which women could share experiences, therefore fueling the emergence of the breast cancer movement.

Other powerful campaigns that started were Avon Foundation Breast Cancer Crusade (selling Breast Cancer Crusade lip balm and 100% of profits went to the foundation + other initiatives) and WomenAid International, an UK based organization, who developed the Pink Ribbon Project that aims to raise awareness and funds for breast cancer screening and treatment in third world countries.

Studies show that breast cancer awareness campaigns had more success than the ones for ovarian cancer of cervical cancer. One explanation was that the nature of the ovarian and cervical cancer is more internal than the breast one. Since breasts are external, and therefore visible organs, the impact of cancer developing there has more impact on people. Another explanation is that because breast cancer usually appears in women over 40 years, in our wives, mothers, aunts and grandmothers, both genders are emotionally affected by the diagnosis.

The cause-related marketing effect

With the aesthetic factor included, the pink ribbon culture reframed the concept of breast cancer awareness into something more complex. It evolved from evidence-based awareness to something symbolic, that would create a movement around it and encourage people and companies to donate preferentially to the breast cancer cause than other causes. This phenomenon is called cause-related marketing and it refers to a firm implementing marketing activities by giving specified amounts of money to a designated cause when customers buy their products/services. This is the case of profit marketing. In the case of non-profit marketing, organizations use marketing as a tool to increase awareness about breast cancer, raise funds for breast cancer research, promote healthy behavior such as regular mammograms or promote a fund-raise event.

One example is The Susan G. Komen Foundation, founded by Nancy Brinker, which influenced the perception of breast cancer and turned into a marketable product which consumers, corporations and politicians were eager to collaborate.

Over the years, corporations started to adopt similar initiatives, with a second agenda of increasing their own profits. Amongst them we can mention: BMW, Estee Lauder, General Motors, Hallmark and many others. Big companies used breast cancer philanthropy as a way to market their products and increase their profits.

These initiatives generated a lot of media exposure and critical articles in which experts labeled breast cancer “a dream cause” and emphasized the success these corporate campaigns had as a result of a cause-related campaign.

The other side of breast cancer campaign

We can see how the pink ribbon has become more than a symbol, even a marketing tool. One downside of the overly promoted pink ribbon might lead to visual oversaturation and lower the emotional response of its meaning.

Breast Cancer Action (BCAction) is an organization that has been requesting transparency in breast cancer campaigns and pink ribbon promotions for the last decades. In 2002, the organization started the Think Before You Pink® campaign, which encourages consumers to think critically and ask questions about the cause of marketing. This campaign raised awareness of the pink ribbon symbol abuse, when from a pink vacuum cleaner worth $200, $1/purchase was donated to a breast cancer organization.

BCAction even created the term “pinkwasher” that describes companies that run breast cancer campaigns while offering products that contain substances that are linked to developing breast cancer. Over the years, the Think Before You Pink® campaign unmasked cosmetic companies using substances that can cause cancer, dairy companies that made products with synthetic hormones, perfume fragrances with substances not tested for human safety and many others.

Breast cancer is a serious disease that should not be taken lightly. As powerful and positive the campaigns of creating awareness about breast cancer are, as important it is to filter the numerous campaigns through the lenses of our own values.

In the meantime, let’s continue to raise awareness about breast cancer.

Do you have a mother, sister, girlfriend, friend, daughter around you?

Remind her to perform a monthly breast self examination and go to regular doctor appointments.

And do not forget about you!

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Be smart. Be (c)LIT. Fly with us!🌺🐝


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