Pinkwashing: Can Shopping Cure Breast Cancer?

pink ribbon magnetYou've heard the term "greenwashing." It refers to corporations that try to appear "green" without reducing their negative impact on the environment.

Since 2002, the group Breast Cancer Action has promoted its "Think Before You Pink" campaign. It's fighting "pinkwashing," which is when corporations try to boost sales by associating their products with the fight against breast cancer. Pinkwashing is a form of slacktivism -- a campaign that makes people feel like they're helping solve a problem, while they're actually doing more to boost corporate profits. Pinkwashing has been around for a while, but is now reaching almost unbelievable levels.

The worst pinkwashers exploit the intense emotions associated with breast cancer while selling products that actually contribute to breast cancer.

So how can the average person recognize pinkwashing? Here are some examples.

BMW's "Ultimate Drive" and Ford's "Warriors in Pink" Campaigns

Pink BMWsAutomaker BMW is in its 12th year of a promotion called "The Ultimate Drive," in which the company encourages people to test drive luxury BMWs to support breast cancer research. For the promotion, BMW sends a pink-striped fleet of BMW luxury cars to various locations around the country and encourages people to test-drive them, promising to donate $1 per mile driven to breast cancer research.

Besides selling more cars, BMW's goal is to rack up one million test-driven miles and donate $1 million to cancer research. A laudable goal, but it ignores the fact that the campaign encourages more and unnecessary driving, not to mention that automobile exhaust contains polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, harmful chemicals known to cause cancer. Adding to the purchasing hype, BMW's "Ultimate Drive" website links to a shopping page where visitors are encouraged to buy pink keychain fobs, pens, handbags, polo shirts, lapel pins and tote bags and other trinkets from "BMW's Pink Ribbon Collection."

Ford is also using breast cancer as a marketing tool, promoting a special "Warriors in Pink" Mustang car featuring pink-stitched seats, floor mats with pink breast cancer awareness ribbons, pink pinstriping and a pink ribbon behind the Mustang horse logo. The website for the car states, "Winning the race against breast cancer is going to take a whole lot of horsepower. ... Now, the limited edition 2008 V-6 Mustang with Warriors in Pink Package adds more muscle to the fight." A whopping $250 from the sale of each car will go to Susan G. Komen for the Cure.

Cosmetics sales campaigns

Cosmetic companies also use breast cancer to market their products, especially during October, Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Revlon has a campaign called "Kisses for the Cure" that urges women to buy lipstick to fight breast cancer. Revlon tells women they can "Pucker up and Kiss Breast Cancer Goodbye."

Shiseido promises to "empower" women by donating a portion of sales of its "Bare Pink Hydro Power Eye Shadow" to a program that supports women who work after their breast cancer treatment.

Estee Lauder sells a $45 "Pink Ribbon Compact" that comes with a little pink ribbon charm attached to it. The company also promotes its "Global Landmarks Illumination Initiative," in which it bathes the Mall of America, among other landmarks, in pink floodlights to "raise awareness of breast cancer."

Everyone Is Getting Into the Act

The "Breast Cancer Site" sounds like a website to get information about the disease, but is really a shopping site where visitors can donate towards mammograms by buying products like pink ribbon bamboo socks, goggles for your dog or pink ribbon hologram flip-flops. Ironically, recent research has shown that the ionizing radiation in mammograms may contribute to the onset of breast cancer cancer in women genetically predisposed to the disease.

Breast cancer awareness toasterIf you visit the Target website and search for "breast cancer awareness," you can purchase everything from pink toasters to pink kitchen mixers to pink bicycles and pink tool kits online. ... The list goes on and on.

The Target product descriptions say that "A portion of the Proceeds of the Sale of this Product will be Donated to Further Breast Cancer Awareness Initiatives." I phoned Target's customer service department to ask exactly how much is donated to breast cancer programs. Twenty minutes and three customer service representatives later, I finally got someone who told me that the portion donated was five percent, and he "thought" it went to the National Breast Cancer Foundation. According to their website, the National Breast Cancer Foundation also partners with Coca Cola, MasterCard, Lexus, Circuit City, Carl's Junior, Hardees and Snap-On-Tools, among many other businesses.

It's All About the Money

How did breast cancer become such big business? Corporations have plunged headlong into re-framing purchasing as a way to fight disease, spurred on by groups like the Susan G. Komen Foundation, which partners with big business to raise money.

Few if any pinkwashers mention ways women can help prevent breast cancer -- for example, by quitting smoking, changing their diet, or avoiding unnecessary exposure to harmful chemicals. Some critics say the almost total lack of focus on prevention is because prevention doesn't make money. It's much more profitable to make people believe that their consumer purchases are contributing to a "cure."

Participate Critically in Philanthropy

Breast Cancer Action, an advocacy group that was one of the earliest and most effective critics of pinkwashing, suggests that people ask themselves the following questions before taking part in pink-ribbon campaigns:

  • How much money from my purchase will actually go to the cause?
  • What is the maximum amount that will be donated?
  • How much money was spent marketing the product I want to buy?
  • What organization will get my donation, and what types of programs do they support?
  • What is the product manufacturer doing to assure that its products are not contributing to causing breast cancer?

One thing is absolutely certain: more money will go towards fighting breast cancer if people drop shopping from the equation and send even a minimal contribution directly to a reputable breast cancer research or advocacy organization.


I understand that an ounce of prevention is worth a ton of cure, but the thing is that no one knows for sure just how far out we are from finding a cure. In the mean time though, I think it's more important to focus on the tasks at hand - for instance, methods of treatment for those who already have it. Having survived breast cancer myself, I found it a little frustrating that there was this relatively huge amount of support for breast cancer research, and little for those who are currently suffering. It's not that I don't appreciate all these donation commercials and pink ribbon stickers for your car and what not, but those do nothing for the ones like me, who have already undergone treatment, and are now focusing on <a href=””>breast reconstruction</a> and getting their lives back.

I agree with Sara. June 12, 2013 was my 1 yr anniversary of my bilateral mastectomy. I remember the day of my ultrasound like it was yesterday and the sound of Dr Brook's voice telling me that she was 99% sure we were looking at breast cancer. I even argued that it couldn't be because there was no history in my family. I was totally freaked out and even more so when the biopsy results from the three tumors came back. I had donated to breast cancer charities, especially Komen, and bought so many items over the years and paid higher prices just because of the pink ribbons to support "the cause." As a woman, I always imagined how awful it must be to have breast cancer. Let me just say, I found out that it is worse than the "awful" I had imagined. After I left the breast center that day with a 99% chance I would need to have a mastectomy, I didn't know what to do next so I just sat in my car in the parking lot with the last half hour replaying over and over in my head. Was it really no big deal? Was I supposed to laugh about it and be happy I didn't have to pay for a boob job? Maybe with all the pink ribbon awareness and funding for research, breast cancer wasn't really like I had imagined. I really had no idea. If my female radiologist made a joke out of my pre-biopsy diagnosis, it must not be as bad as it used to be or what I had thought, right? Did she see me starting to panic and then decide to downplay breast cancer? "Honey, these days insurance pays for everything so you should just go ahead and have a double mastectomy, get yourself a brand new pair of boobs, exactly the way you want them, custom ordered! Girl, your insurance is going to pay for you to get what a whole lot of women have to pay for out of their own pockets...Ha ha!" Fast forward to a week or so later when I reached out to my local Susan G. Komen office in between getting the biopsy test results and my appointment to consult with an oncology breast surgeon. I wanted to find other women like me. I needed to talk to a live person or people. I wanted to find a support group. However, when I identified myself as recently being diagnosed and that I was looking for resources available to me, information, support, etc, she interrupted and said they only did fundraising. She said she really didn't know what to tell me since she was the only one in the office at the time but maybe I could try calling the Church Health Center. I looked up the number and called them. I was transferred several times and then told that since I was not looking for financial support for medical care, she didn't know what to tell me except maybe the Komen office could refer me to a support group. When I told her that Komen referred me to them, she suggested I look on the Internet or wait until my appointment to talk with my doctor. Please do not misunderstand me. I am grateful for being alive because of the research and medical technology, and also grateful for my new, partially reconstructed uneven breasts that have no feeling but do have battle scars all the way across both breasts and it is a reminder everyday when I shower... I didn't mean to get into all that but a year later with the bilateral mastectomy behind me, 6 rounds of chemo behind me, reconstruction partially finished, and anxiety with me at all times, it would be nice as a survivor and pink charitable donor to see and recognize exactly how the pink ribbon dollars donated helps breast cancer patients...? By the way, I just found a support group that starts next Monday but it is not specific to breast cancer; it is for women facing or who have faced any type of cancer. I'm not sure why I felt the need to write but I'm sure it was therapy for me, and I need all the therapy I can get, that's for sure. Thanks for reading and for the therapy. :-)

it's pretty creative way to boost sales, and I've never thought about it in details. We're buying pumpers for our baby with the same “pinkwashing”, but it is not a determinant for us.

pink washing is an insensitive way to rake profits. it's a shame that businesses capitalize on the misfortune of others. __________ <a href="">poppy pods</a>

We must maintain this awareness on 'the other awareness'! It is nothing but a scam that is exploiting the personal tragedy of individuals and their families in the interest of money; it is exploiting the emotional subject that is breasts! It started out as a good campaign of awareness that has gotten out of control. There won't be a cure for my breastcancer in my lifetime - that is accessible and available to all - because there is too much money in it. The backlash will come. I have spent so much money on treatments. I have held fundraisers and put my own money to so many causes because it seemed we could buy our way to a cure. Americans think they can buy anything. There is also too much money in current chemo treatments and postoperative pharmaceuticals too, for any interest in a cure. Pink dollar suckers!

I can't believe Ford only gives $250 from the sale of their car to breast cancer research. It is so important to support breast cancer awareness, but make sure you are actually supporting before you purchase something. Although, it is good if you are specifically in the market for something. If you go for the one that supports a cause, you'll be supporting while getting what you need.