Pink Ribbon Promises

Breast-cancer-related promotions are a hit, but how much good do they do?

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In other instances, companies put tight caps on their pink payouts. Last year, for instance, Cartier promised to donate $30,000 to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation from the sales of its stylish pink-ribbon Roadster watch. But since the watch retails for $3,900, that's less than the price of eight watches. This year Cartier lowered the price to $3,800 and agreed to donate $200 for each watch sold but guaranteed only a $16,000 donation.

Pink washing creates a dilemma for charities like Komen, which raises about $30 million a year by working with pink-promotion partners. Clearly, it's better for corporations to give something than nothing, and these programs do make it easy for people to donate. "We're always looking for ways to engage consumers in the breast- cancer cause by capturing them where they live, work and play," says Cindy Schneible, Komen's vice president of resource development. "But what we began to see that was troubling were programs that didn't carry a transparent disclaimer. They would say a percentage of proceeds would benefit breast cancer, but there was no clear information about which organizations would benefit or how much they would get."

Komen, which has raised $775 million for breast-cancer research, screening, education and treatment since it was established in 1982, makes a point of transparency about its pink campaigns, as do at least two other large charities: the Avon Foundation Breast Cancer Crusade and the Breast Cancer Research Foundation (BCRF), started by Evelyn Lauder. Komen, for instance, insists that partners in pink-ribbon promotions reveal what percentage of sales will be allocated to the charity and how the money will be spent. They do not, however, require corporate partners to divulge the profits from the products or the amount spent promoting them.

While it's hard to fault the intentions of any corporation or nonprofit that raises money for breast cancer, critics of pink-ribbon funding say that even though a lot of money is raised, it isn't necessarily being spent in a thoughtful, coordinated manner. "There's a lot of duplication on how we fund research, and there are huge gaps as well," explains BCA executive director Barbara Brenner, who would like to see more research on the environmental causes of breast cancer.

Other activists are worried that the sheer ubiquity of pink-ribbon campaigns creates an illusion that all is well in the world of breast-cancer research and treatment. "When companies make breast cancer so pink and pretty and upbeat, too many people think we're close to getting answers and that breast cancer isn't the problem it once was," says Fran Visco, president of the National Breast Cancer Coalition. "That's not the right message. We may have raised awareness, but incidence rates are higher than they were 30 years ago. We don't know how to prevent or cure the disease, and more than 40,000 women still die every year." Visco is worried that donors will feel they have done their bit by buying pink. What's more vital, in her view, is keeping pressure on the Federal Government to adequately support the biggest U.S. funder of breast-cancer research--the National Cancer Institute.

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