Cristen Conger

Don't Think Pink for Breast Cancer

Is pink bad for breast cancer? (Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

National Breast Cancer Awareness Month doesn't take place until October, when the pink and Halloween orange will duke it out for color supremacy (I'd put my cash on pink, FYI), but new research (via Forbes) indicates that it's time to rethink pink.

With a title like "Pastel Injustice: The Corporate Use of Pinkwashing for Profit", you can guess where this is going. Authors Amy Lubitow and Mia Davis assert that companies are using the breast cancer awareness for "pinkwashing," in the same vein that not-so-eco-friendly businesses may greenwash.

Pinkwashing is the co-optation of breast cancer symbolism by corporate actors who stand to profit from the use of breast cancer awareness imagery, including pink ribbons or simply the pastel pink which have become synonymous with breast cancer ''awareness,'' ''the search for a cure,'' or the ''fight against breast cancer'' in the United States.

Businesses reap rewards from the breast cancer research funding because it's one of the most identifiable causes in the U.S. -- and more importantly, identifiable among women. Since women typically control the household purse strings, they may be more likely to toss their dollars at "breast cancer pink" products. Meanwhile, pinkwashing companies may be "while using carcinogens, hormone disruptors, and other toxic ingredients in the making of pink products." One of the most egregious pinkwashing examples the study cites is Avon's 2001 breast cancer awareness-themed lipsticks that possibly contained carcinogenic hormone disruptors. Ah, and how about those pink KFC buckets full of pinkwashed, battered and fried chicken?

Prior marketing research on the effect of the Pepto-hued advertising blitz that happens in October further indicates that it might be time to rethink pink for breast cancer. Over three years and 10 identical experiments, Stefano Puntoni at Erasmus University has found that gender-oriented pink breast cancer campaigns seems to deactivate women's brains about preventing and fighting breast cancer, rather than raising awareness. Instead, Putoni thinks that the sea of pink triggers "strong denial mechanisms" that cause women to subconsciously distance themselves from the breast cancer cause.

In an interview with Harvard Business Review, he explained, "...those who saw a pink ad about breast cancer were significantly less likely to say that they'd contract the disease than those who saw an ad with neutral colors." Perhaps due to that dulling effect in female brains, men actually found pink-themed breast cancer ads easier to read than women did.

In both cases, the color pink isn't the root problem. For breast cancer campaigns, it's the gender cues culturally associated with pink (the feminized color used to be 'for boys', in fact) that devalued the core message. For corporations looking to burnish their public profile by pinkwashing, it's internal practices and politics that determine whether or not they're actually doing good. I'm not suggesting that we rethink funding breast cancer research and educating the public about prevention and treatment, either. But it's certainly time to reconsider whether all of those cheerful pink ribbons festooned across NFL fields, yogurt containers and credit cards are doing more harm than good to breast cancer.

Follow Cristen & Molly from Stuff Mom Never Told You on Twitter and Facebook.