Pink Ribbon Promises

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

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This past March, Barb Jarmoska and 21 other women over the age of 50 set out from San Diego on a cross-country bike trip to raise money for breast-cancer research. Their goal was to arrive in St. Augustine, Fla., in two months' time after pedaling through eight states. Each woman paid for her own trip and picked her own breast-cancer charity. For Jarmoska, it was the perfect way to pay homage to two dear friends she had lost to the disease, while fulfilling a lifelong desire to bike across the U.S.

But when she began researching which charity to support, Jarmoska felt overwhelmed. Numerous organizations sponsored walks, runs and bike trips. Even more were pitching pink-ribbon products and promotions with a promise that a portion of sales would support a breast-cancer cause. Jarmoska was stunned by the profusion of pink cosmetics, jewelry, teddy bears, blush wines, blenders, candles and paper products. "I realized breast cancer had become the poster child of corporate cause-related marketing campaigns," she says. "With so many companies involved, my suspicion was that the motive was not always entirely pure."

Jarmoska is not alone in her suspicion. A growing number of breast-cancer activists and organizations have become concerned that the pink ribbon-- an emblem of breast-cancer awareness since 1992--has been hijacked for marketing purposes, a phenomenon that some call pink washing. Last year the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, the nation's largest private charity focusing on breast cancer, urged consumers to start asking questions like how much of the money they spend on pink purchases will actually go to charity, what kind of activities does the charity support and what has its record been? In the same spirit, Breast Cancer Action (BCA), a grass-roots advocacy organization based in San Francisco, offers a consumer-education program and website called Think Before You Pink (think before you pink org) introduced four years ago. Jarmoska decided to give BCA the $5,000 she raised biking cross-country.

Donating by making a purchase is a "really seductive" idea, says Samantha King, a professor of health studies at Queens University in Kingston, Ont., and the author of a new book, Pink Ribbons, Inc.: Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy (University of Minnesota; 157 pages). "People often say to me, 'I'm really busy, and this is something small I can do.' But the problem is, it's really not clear what kind of positive effect it's having overall."

Some of the pink-ribbon promotions don't make much sense financially. Take Yoplait's offer to donate 10¢ to the Komen Foundation for every pink yogurt lid mailed to the company from September through December. Komen would get a bigger donation if consumers simply donated the 39¢ it costs to buy each stamp, not to mention the fact that donors would have to polish off 100 yogurts to come up with a $10 contribution--a formula that surely enriches Yoplait more than the breast-cancer cause.

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