OK, So I Hate the Pink Ribbon, Now What?

Pink ribbons at a UM baseball game 3/11/17. Photo taken by author.

If there’s one takeaway from any of my blog posts over the past few months, I’d like to say that it’s pretty straight forward — the pink ribbon as a symbol for breast cancer awareness, well, kind of sucks. While perhaps it once symbolized feminism and social progress, now it’s merely a shadow of a symbol that no longer represents the women it was intended to serve. And yet, it’s plastered everywhere, from grocery stores to car dealerships to college campuses to football games. The effects of the ribbon are widespread, as it’s defined a whole movement of pinkwashing products. It’s no longer a symbol that represents women; it’s a symbol that represents a financial bottom line.

So, let’s say you agree with my criticisms, if that’s the case you’ve probably asked yourself, “Ok, Grace, so now what?” After all, it’s nearly impossible to assume that the ribbon is going to entirely disappear, especially as numerous companies, non-profit organizations, and individuals use the breast cancer ribbon in their branding (hell, even I use it! 😂). And the ribbon isn’t trademarked, the only pink ribbon symbol that is trademarked is the Susan G. Komen Foundation’s Race for the Cure symbol, which means basically anyone can use it. So, what would I propose instead?

The answer, well, isn’t a simple answer. I know, I know, we’re all looking for kind of a quick answer and instant gratification, so sorry to disappoint. 

The Conundrum 

By and large, the pink ribbon alone in isolation isn’t problematic. After all, symbols only represent the meaning that we give to them. Think of it as kind of like language. Some of the world’s leading sociolinguists will insist that if we didn’t assign any meaning to our language, we wouldn’t really have language at all. So for instance, if we didn’t learn that the word ‘door’ is associated with a structure that opens and closes to either provide or prohibit access to another physical space, then the word ‘door’ would essentially be jargon. Returning back to the ribbon, if we didn’t learn to associate it with breast cancer awareness, any meaning it had would be null. 

With that in mind, if I were to just say, “OK, let’s replace the pink ribbon with [INSERT SYMBOL HERE], what am I really accomplishing?  We’d be simply replacing one symbol for another, to only risk the new symbol merely inheriting the same meaning that the pink ribbon had. If we replaced the word ‘door’ with ‘dore’ to still symbolize a structure that opens and closes to either provide or prohibit access to another physical space, then what’s really the difference, other than messing around with the etymology of a word for no apparent reason? Thus, unless we change how we look at breast cancer awareness, and the meaning we give to awareness, then the problems surrounding the pink ribbon will persist, regardless of what we use to symbolize it.

OK, well then what’s the fundamental problem with breast cancer awareness? 

The Cycle of $$$

There are several issues regarding breast cancer awareness, from the overly optimistic messaging campaigns, to the hyper fixation on regaining feminity after breast cancer diagnosis, to the money that is funneled into breast cancer “education” AKA advertising, to name a few. But one I want to focus on right now that’s important to keep in mind with the pink ribbon and mainstream breast cancer awareness is the vicious cycle of money that both for-profit companies and non-profit charities engage in together. Breast cancer awareness as we know it has become a money making machine. It tugs at both your heart strings and your  wallet in just the right way. Private companies and non-profits alike have managed to team up in what seems like a marketing text book’s wet dream to capitalize on the breast cancer awareness movement. Before I get into the nitty gritty, let me give you this case example of what I mean by this vicious money cycle. I had a few in mind, and I can detail those another time, but for now this will do.

Warriors in Pink, sponsored by Ford 

Because who else would be guilty of this but a car company, am I right? To set the stage for all of this, they even outright admit on their mission page “As a car company we are not breast cancer experts, but we can help.” OK, thanks Ford. Moving right alone, Warriors in Pink started about two decades ago, in 1993 (I know, 1993 was two decades ago, say what!?).  Warriors in Pink donates all of their contributions from merchandise purchases to four different breast cancer charities: Susan G. Komen, the Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation, The Pink Fund, and the Young Survivor Coalition (YSC). Now, these four charities are reputable to various degrees, but that’s not the point — four charities? How much good can be done spreading all those funds to four totally different organizations doing totally different lines of work around breast cancer? Isn’t that dividing the assets of Warriors in Pink too thinly? But given the sponsored posts on the website, it quickly becomes clear that partnering with these four non-profits allows Ford to heavily market their merchandise. Likewise, these four charities benefit from all the exposure, and they have much more to gain financially then a mega company like Ford, so they’re gong to take the opportunity and run with it.  

The more you look into the Warriors in Pink, the more you begin to notice the ever so subtle not subtle at all marketing phrases like, “Warriors in Pink is relentless – dedicated to fueling the spirit of those living with the disease 365 days a year.” (italics added for emphasis). Or, try the URL they advertise on their YouTube videos, FordCares.com, which leads you back to the Warriors in Pink homepage. Or, the “Models of Courage” campaign, spotlighting breast cancer survivors (which only were models until a few years ago, but let’s save that issue for another time) which all are just happening to be wearing gear with the Warriors in Pink Ford logo on it. These aren’t coincidences, these are all extremely intentional (see here for more).

In 2012, Warriors in Pink began a social media campaign for their documentary on the Models of Courage, as well as running PSA spots on prime time television networks like CBS. Tracy Magee, Ford Primary brand experiential marketing manager, is quoted as telling the online publication Marketing Daily , Ford sees it as a win-win: we make an impact while same time making an emotional connection around the Ford name.”

Bingo. That’s pure marketing, folks. 

Warriors in Pink, and other examples like it, benefit from something called cause-related marketing. It’s become a tool to help both companies and non-profits increase their profit margins, and in the meanwhile, gain positive exposure in the public eye. It’s calculated, it’s intentional, and it’s very real. In fact, it’s strongly recommended, as it’s been proven in most cases to be successful in raising revenue for private companies, and increasing donations for non-profits. And because of this model, for-profit companies are raising positive brand equity, while a myriad of breast cancer charities are cashing in. And in the process, we have more breast cancer charities than we can count, because they all have something individually to gain from corporate partnerships. In summary, we gain awareness of these charities through the sponsorship campaigns from for-profit companies, but then the actual funds that are raised are difficult to calculate because they are so heavily divided among a wide variety of charities.

The meaning behind the pink ribbon, or branding products in the color pink, became skewed the moment we realized it could be a profit-generating machine. We can disguise it under this guise of hope and feminine pride all we want, but the real meaning is coated in capitalistic greed. Until we can begin to come to terms with this fundamental problem surrounding the pink ribbon, we can’t really talk about adapting a new symbol. 

Final Thoughts (for now, because let’s be honest, I’m not going to shutup for awhile)

If you’re still with me reading this blog post, you obviously care at least a little bit about issues surrounding breast cancer awareness. Now, I have no statistical backing for what I’m about to say, but I feel pretty confident in saying that the vast majority of Americans don’t care nearly as much as I do about the faults in the pink ribbon riddled breast cancer awareness movement. They’ll see the pink ribbon as a symbol of good faith and will happily donate $1 or $5, maybe even $10 or $20, to a breast cancer charity or non-profit, without even giving a second thought regarding how the organization will actually use the donation. Simailarly, they’ll see a product packaged in a pink container in the grocery store, including a message on the box that 10% of the proceeds of each purchase will be donated to a breast cancer foundation, and they’ll happily buy it, thinking they did a good deed. But none of what I’m saying is accomplishing any long-term social good. As long as we’re willing to frame breast cancer awareness in a way that prioritizes profit over human life, which is what companies and non-profits like I mentioned above have proven time and time again they’re willing to do, we won’t achieve anything. 

The pink ribbon, and its affect on pinkwashed products,  continues this deeply rooted narrative about breast cancer awareness — women can be hopeful and optimistic and feminine, as long as we’re donating money. 

But can we replace the pink ribbon? Well, my argument is that we could, but if we changed it without addressing these concerns related to the profitability of breast cancer awareness, it wouldn’t make much of a difference. But if anything, that search for a simple, quick fix, is almost part of the problem. The issue goes further than simply replacing the pink ribbon, or any symbol really. The issue is finding a new way to talk about awareness with awareness being the primary concern, and not profit.

So now what? Well, it’s never fun to have an angsty and fatalistic attitude after all. Now might be a good time to emphasize that the purpose of this blog isn’t just to slam the pink ribbon, it’s to give women a sense of empowerment over their health, their identity, and their overall livelihood. As women, we can donate to organizations that are trustworthy, reliable, and providing a social good (you can identify what those organizations are by using the National Institute of Health’s basic guidelines for choosing a reputable organization). We can choose to not continue purchasing products from companies that are only supporting breast cancer awareness to improve their bottom line. And we can continue the long and treacherous battle in the name of improving women’s health care coverage.  We can not only “fight” breast cancer, but fight for our lives, and for our voices to be heard. 

We can change the meaning of the pink ribbon, and that’s more important than debating what’s a good alternative for it.

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