Saturday, May 26, 2012

Pink Ribbons, Inc.


 “This is an outright war on breast cancer and your dollars are the ammunition.”

As an artist, I’ve spent a lot of time contemplating the association between females and the colour pink, but these thoughts have never strayed into the rich (literally) connection in breast cancer marketing. Sure, I’d noticed some bizarre products like a pink plastic stapler resembling a high-heeled shoe, but the extent of this marketing extravaganza and its connotations were lost on me. Enter Samantha King, associate professor of gender studies and kinesiology at Queen’s University, where she presented in today’s MiniU conference.

In the introduction to her book, Pink Ribbons, Inc. (University of Minnesota Press, 2006), King ponders what brought about the change in representations of breast cancer on two New York Times Magazine covers. A 1993 cover with artist Matuschka revealing her mastectomy scar contains the caption—incidentally, known in the publishing world as a ‘slug’—“You Can’t Look Away Anymore. The Anguished Politics of Breast Cancer.” A 1996 cover, meanwhile, features supermodel Linda Evangelista covering her breasts with her arm and the caption, “This year’s hot charity.” Evangelista’s “hypernormal femininity” (p. x) and chic portrayal of the disease were a sign of things to come, but they weren’t the first in a series of marketing oddities.

Rewind to the early 1990s, when the pink ribbon originated. It wasn’t always a pink ribbon. It was peach and it was the brainchild of Charlette Hayley, who regarded it less as a brainchild and more as a sincere gesture to bring attention to federal funding shortages for breast cancer prevention in the US. When she declined an offer from Self magazine and Estée Lauder to partner with them in a magazine issue devoted to breast cancer awareness, they appropriated it anyway. Based on a lawyer’s advice, they changed the colour. “Colours are really important,” King stresses, and focus groups revealed that pink denotes qualities like lack of threat; certainly, it would be in corporations’ best interests to avoid acknowledging the threat posed by breast cancer. King thought at the time that “the pink ribbon would soon lose its lustre” but it seems to have perpetuated this “insidiously gendered…cause-related marketing” (p. xxiv). Pink is so closely linked with femininity (at least in the last 65 or so years) that we are stopped in our tracks by breast cancer awareness campaigns with slogans like, “Real men wear pink.” This particular slogan was used for a partnership between the NFL and the Komen Foundation, which is notorious for withdrawing and reinstating funds for Planned Parenthood (which, incidentally, plays an important role in breast cancer screening). Men are generally excluded from this pink marketing, which is problematic since they too are at risk of getting breast cancer. King highlights the bizarreness of women receiving gifts like pink bears when they are diagnosed, in contrast to men, who would not receive, say, Matchbox cars when diagnosed with prostate cancer. Even products that are associated with men can have a feminine version thanks to corporations cashing in on the breast cancer awareness trend, most notably a handgun with an interchangeable pink grip. If you still don't think pink products are ubiquitous, consider that the pink ribbon is featured on one of only two coloured Canadian coins in history (a quarter, which was only distributed at a drugstore chain), or that one of only two American stamps to be sold for higher than the letter rate was part of a breast cancer awareness campaign. Also consider that the other Canadian coin commemorated war veterans and the other US stamp commemorated 9/11. This is an outright war on breast cancer and your dollars are the ammunition.

These marketing gimmicks wouldn’t be so perturbing if their wording weren’t frequently misleading (noting, for example, that an unspecified portion of proceeds goes to an unspecified charity); or if the same companies didn’t put a cap on the money they donate to said charity; or if the dollar amount donated per person weren’t so bleak. King gives the example of a yogurt campaign that would require consumers to consume three large containers of yogurt a day for four months to generate $36 in donations. It hardly seems worthwhile, but who in the general population bothers to do the math? 

It’s not just the products we buy that are pink. Pink branding has spread to our environment, with corporations competing over who will light up the next major monument, be it a pyramid or the Eiffel Tower. Last year, I was part of an art show called PINK that involved local businesses in a small town outside Chicago creating pink window displays simultaneously. It’s no wonder King has observed breast cancer patients counting down the days on an online forum until the end of breast cancer month (October) so they can escape the constant presence of pink and the commoditization of their experience.

Adding insult to injury is the fact that the face of breast cancer tends to be “youthful, ultra-feminine, and radiant with health” as well as Caucasian. What, then, can we make of donut and fried chicken companies launching breast cancer campaigns or cosmetics companies doing the same while continuing to include known carcinogens in their products? They’ve been labeled ‘pink washers’ by a San Francisco-based activist group.

If you think that participating in a walk-a-thon or marathon is a better choice for helping in the fight against breast cancer, you’ll be disappointed to hear that many of them have declared bankruptcy for using trademarked phrasing by a major fundraising corporation. Or that in one of the most high profile fundraisers with well-meaning participants celebrating their own survival or honouring loved ones affected or killed by the disease, almost one-third of the money raised was used for administration and marketing costs as well as entertainment for the participants.

The film, Pink Ribbons, Inc. (2011, National Film Board of Canada) opens in the US on June 1st. For a clip, click here.

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