Monday, October 29, 2007

Breast Cancer Sells

Am I the only one who's totally sick of having every "pink" product shoved in my face for all of October? Every magazine and blog I read won't stop talking about how I can purchase my way to a cure for breast cancer, much in the same way we were led to believe that buying (RED) would save Africa, or buying a "green" McMansion will stop global warming. While it's important to raise awareness for these urgent issues, the message is wrong, and misleads people into thinking that small acts of consumption are enough to fix large, complex problems.

There was a great article on Alternet recently which discussed the ways that breast cancer was discussed in women's magazines during National Breast Cancer Month, where much of the coverage was "offensive, superficial, misleading, or flat-out wrong." From articles listing "10 Good Things About Cancer" (your new boobs will be perky, you'll get lots of cards and flowers, etc) to giving inaccurate information about mammograms, they simplify information about risk factors, often leaving out the potential risks of the potentially carcinogenic products advertised in their magazine. Redbook offered a "cheers for a cure" sparkling wine ad, conveniently forgetting to mention in their editorials that alcohol can increase risk for cancer.

Women's magazines and websites also like to sex up breast cancer. The above advertisement puts a supermodel face (not to mention lingerie-clad bottom) to the issue, while the editorial pages are filled with young, pretty and uniformly white faces of breast cancer survivors. The nitty gritty details of what it's like to live with cancer every day or undergo painful treatments are left out in favor of highly dramatic stories about a beautiful young woman considering a preventative double mastectomy. And can we deny the fact that because this is a cancer affecting one of the sexiest body parts (as opposed to colon, kidney or lung cancer), it's treated differently, with ample opportunities for pretty photographs? Perhaps this is one of the reasons why breast cancer gets so much air time despite the fact that it's also National Domestic Violence Month... who wants to see pictures of bruised and battered women when you can show skimpy models in "pink" gear?

I find myself sympathizing with the Buy (Less) Crap movement, which argues that consumption is not the most reasonable response to stopping human suffering. I think the "pink" products are worth considering if you go into a store intending to buy something similar, or allow the "pink" status to sway you to purchase the product which donates money to a cause you support. But often it's not clear just how much of your purchase will go to the advertised foundation, and when it comes down to it, buying "pink" simply cannot compare to donating directly to the cause you support.

If you find yourself buying products like these as gifts, I think it's worth reconsidering the purchase and instead making a donation in your friend or family member's name. In my own experience, I've found that donations make the best gifts, and people are rarely disappointed that they didn't get another mini lipgloss collection or polo shirt when they know that your money went toward making an actual difference.

What do you think?


Elle said...

THINK before you pink

Kiley said...

I think all of what you said is true; a lot of these pink promotions seem to be another way of making a profit. I'm less inclined to buy a pink product when I see exactly how much of my money goes towards the charity - sometimes as little as 10%.

Anonymous said...

Ah, once again siphoning both material and argument from the New York Times...except you forgot to cite your source this time, oops!

Meg said...

Anonymous: If there was an article in the NYT about this subject, I missed it. I always make a point to cite articles and this post was no exception.

Anonymous said...

I think donating as a "gift" to another person is silly. A donation is about the group the aid is going to, and can make the donator feel good about their decision. Where does the third person fit in?

Kai Jones said...

The only time it is socially correct to donate in lieu of a gift is when the intended recipient specifically asked for it.

It is no gift to me to donate to your favorite charity, or even mine: it's just doing your ethical and moral duty. Pretending it substitutes for a gift is selfish; putting the donation in my name is presumption. Myself, I'd rather have a letter of appreciation if you can't afford both a gift and your chosen charitable donation.

While the intention may be kindly, the action is wrong.

Teek said...

Kai -

What is your source on that etiquette, other than personal preference? I've never seen it considered impolite to donate to a favored charity, particularly for people who do not need or desire material gifts. Perhaps that is culturally specific, though.

I would glad to receive a donation in my name or anonymously in lieu of a gift, unless it was to a charity I actively disagreed with. Even then, unless it was intended spitefully, I'd appreciate the spirit in which it was given.

lisa said...

Excellent post, Meg. A friend and I were talking about this a couple weeks ago. In the end, it seems like all these pink product campaigns benefit the products more than the charities. The charities either get a very low percentage of net proceeds (like 10%, as one of the commenters said), or some companies will cap their contributions (e.g. 10% of every pink blender purchased up to a maximum of X amount).

WendyB said...

I am not a huge fan of these "awareness" months either. I think they outlive their usefulness. I don't need to walk around feeling like I am doomed to get cancer, and I know a lot of people who feel that way because it is so in-your-face all the time. However, I would never give a donation as a gift unless it was asked for. I really feel that's a little awkward (are you sitting in judgment saying "you don't need anything?") and really not in the spirit of gift-giving, IMHO. If the recipient asks for it, that's different. If it is time to buy someone a gift and you don't want to buy them a "pink" or other "cause" gift, just get them something else! A gift certificate for a massage, theater tickets, can be an experience as well as a thing.

kamo said...

I agree completely.. Its like some kind of sick rewards system - buy more stuff, do your little part, look pretty! Instant karma! It seems completely geared towards the fact that most people need things sugar coated and with instant gratification. Tough issues are ugly - cancer, melting ice caps, AIDS... They will need a much less superficial method of charity if things are to actually get accomplished. Obviously even 10% of a purchase is better than 0%, but I think products like this reinforce the idea that 10% is enough, that as long as you have your pretty lipgloss or whatever, you've done your part.

Kai Jones said...

teek: My source (other than my upbringing) is Miss Manners, e.g.:

"Miss Manners has no doubt that this is for the best all around (for you, the recipient and for your neighbors) but the fact remains that your friends did not give you a present. They got a twofer out of their philanthropy by merging their gift list with their charity list."

Ophélie said...

I personally ask for charitable donations for my birthday and christmas. I have too much stuff as it is, and, working for an NGO, I see how badly needed those donations are.
The initiative behind the (RED) campaign was to substitute a good that the person would have purchased already with a choice that redistributes wealth in a different way. The problem is that the companies opted to brand EVERYTHING very visibly, thus making their (RED) product a non-substitute.
That's different from having people buy another useless pink lipstick "for the cause".
Then again, how many people give to charities on a regular basis otherwise?

judyo423 said...

I agree...THINK BEFORE YOU PINK...or RED...or GREEN. Be sure you know how much of your donation (cash or product) actually goes to the cause not just for administrative costs. This information is usually included in the advert for products. And if you are going to donate directly to a charitable you can get more info from:

Andi O'Rourke said...

I have a problem with the Net-a-porter ad. Thanks for the one Asian girl, but aren't black women statistically more prone to breast cancer? And I thought that most forms of breast cancer usually develop in women over 40.

But the worst part is that in order for me to take anything besides a lingerie ad seriously, the models must be wearing pants. These models are not wearing pants; therefore I do not take them seriously.

Ladies, the new face of breast cancer (by Ralph Lauren): under 25, 80% white, under 120 pounds and 60% (red, blue and yellow) resulting from alien genetics.

Anonymous said...

Meg, you GET it!
I've been feeling these same sentiments for some time, but you just got it completely right.
Plus, we never see things about heart disease,which is actually a larger threat to women than breast cancer.

Juji said...

Get off your high horse Meg

At the end of the day the increased awareness of breast cancer has meant more women than ever are getting mammograms. Isn't this more important?

And if there is a 'pink' option for something you were already going to purchase - where is the harm? Even if it is a smaller percentage of profits going to charity, every little bit does count.

Jessica said...

meg-you make a good point. however, if a direct donation to a charity is not in the cards for one reason or another- and a purchase of some assorted color (be it red, pink, neon green) is, then what's the harm? At least there is something behind the blatant consumerism that might, somewhere along the line, help someone out. and i must point out that while yes, some of these ads are going too far (or not far enough?)- think of their audience and reach. if more women are inclined to get regular mammos due to an ad campaign, then i'd say we've made some progress.

Anonymous said...

the focus should be on the entirety of female health. yes, breast cancer is a big deal, but so is cervical cancer, pancreatic cancer, heart disease, etc.

and frankly, if you are so selfish that you would see a donation to a charity in your name as not a real gift, and a real gift only as being something material that benefits you, then please, go get yourself a reality check.

Carissa said...

Awareness days actually correlate to increased calls to cancer centers from people looking to get more information about the disease. So they're not all bad! And I think black women develop breast cancer slightly more frequently than white women, but the problem is black women are much more likely to be diagnosed at a later stage and much more likely to die from it.

I don't mind some of the cancer coverage - Self magazine had a huge section that dealt with ovarian, uterine, and lung cancer and explained how to decrease your risk of developing certain types of cancer through behavior changes. That seemed pretty informative and useful (unlike most magazine coverage), for a magazine.

I agree the pink campaign irks me - I wouldn't buy a $58 keychain anyway; why would I buy one that donates $2 to breast cancer research? I'd much rather give a full donation that I could afford to charity! Not to mention it's nauseating to associate such a cute color with, um, cancer.

Anonymous said...

I agree completely with your post - and find the whole "pink" thing even more irritating because heart disease is a far more serious killer of women - but that doesn't lend itself to promotion by skimpily-clad models.

This type of promotion is offensive on many levels - and I've even seen small print that claimed that only 1% (yes,that's one percent!) of the PROFIT was donated to the "pink" cause. Oh,come on!

I quite intentionally NEVER make these purchases. I prefer considered, direct donation every time.

Regarding charitable donations as gifts: I've given cards to individuals, in addition to gifts, that noted that I'd made a donation, above and beyond my usual, to a charity. I've done this to provide a personal introduction to a particular charity. I always follow these rules when donating in this way:

1 - I never make the donation in the other person's name. This would be an inappropriate violation of their privacy.

2 - Even though I don't use my recipient's name, I do my best to ensure that the charity conforms with the recipient's values.

3 - The donation notification is always in addition to a usual, planned gift, not as a substitute.

Eryngium said...

I might be more inclined to take that print ad seriously if the women in it actually had breasts.

Anonymous said...

I'm sick to death of "Pink." Buy a $20 lipstick, and the company will donate 2 cents... or whatever. I think the whole thing is a crock, just another advertising gimmick.

Many members of my upper-middle class family like to give and receive donations for Christmas and Mother's Day. We don't need more stuff, and it's a way of saying, "I was thinking of you, and chose to honor you by caring for those in need." We pick concerns that we can both celebrate.

Thanks for speaking out on these issues - it takes courage.

Sarah said...

Hey-- I'm a Smith alum that came to your site by way of a posting on the alum jolt-- congrats on the success of your site! I'm glad you wrote about this topic-- I just covered it in my Fundraising & Development class last week! Breast Cancer month has gotten far too commercial. It's hard, because a lot of the pink products do give a lot of money to places like Dana Farber, but it's pretty clear that the corporations are getting more out of it than the cancer researchers.
Anyhow, great blog and keep writing!

Dianna said...

Me too! I am so sick of seeing everything in pink packaging! I hate pink to begin with, but seeing so much of it everywhere I turn is sickening. Also, breast cancer isn't the only type of cancer. Cancer can attack any part of the body. You know the most common types of cancer, across mean and women? Colon and lung.

Anonymous said...

Very true!!