Pink October

It’s Autumn again, not so much the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, but pink October. Five years ago as I contemplated the private drama of my breast cancer diagnosis, I was perplexed by the volume of breast cancer images everywhere I looked. I was a few months into treatment before I understood that October is breast cancer awareness month and October is pink.

October is the key time for fundraising for the breast cancer charities. Using a jolly office photo of workers dressed in pink ties and pink Alice bands, the Breast Cancer Care website urges us to “Get in the Pink” and raise money for people affected by breast cancer. You can call for a fundraising pack stuffed with fundraising ideas for holding your pink party with pink food and pink drinks, or organising a pink night in with pink pampering. “Anything goes as long as it’s pink”, maybe a pink sports day at school or a pink quiz at work.

Breakthrough Breast Cancer does ‘all things pink’, with ultimate pink products, this year featuring Adidas pink sportswear, a gesture probably to the idea that keeping fit might help reduce your breast cancer risk. Cancer Research UK (CRUK) has re launched ‘it’s a girl thing’ with cheap merchandise: a pink brolly for £5.99, pink lottie duck and lottie duck key ring, pink ribbon memory slippers and pink ribbon glasses case, pink ribbon car freshener.

The pink theme is heavily endorsed by massive corporate sponsorship. Bra and lingerie manufactures hit the jackpot in October. ASDA is at it with its Ticked Pink season and offers tickled pink bras, hankies, candles, cosmetics and bath oils, a pink fluffy trilby hat and a pink teddy. Shoppers are assaulted by grinning assistants brandishing pink balloons and pink buckets. Elsewhere you can buy a pink GHD hair straightener and styler for £125 (£10 to charity), pink ribbon crocs, a Padders limited edition breast cancer shoe in pink leather for £50 or you can pick up pink power tools from Power Devil. Fired Earth have a pink Monroe chair at £475 (£50 to charity), and Next are retailing 15 products which include pink spotty wellington boots. One of my favourite gifts this year is the Royal Doulton fine bone china figurine called ‘Grace’ who sells for £125, complete with pink ball gown and pink ribbon bodice sash. She’s selling too on e-bay-latest bid £90. Pins and brooches are everywhere, but not the simple ribbon of the early 1990s; now it’s glitzy diamante versions, plastic buttons, in every hue from pretty pastel to vibrant purple.

A critique of breast cancer consumer corporatism is seriously lacking in the UK. By contrast in the USA, where ‘pinkwashing’ reaches more extreme heights, there is also more political debate. Samantha King does a brilliant analysis of the ways in which breast cancer has been transformed from a stigmatised disease to a market driven industry celebrating ‘survivorship.’ In Pink Ribbons, Inc. she challenges the consumerism and corporate philanthropy which characterises awareness raising month. The advocacy group Breast Cancer Action uses its thinkbeforeyoupink website to question the role of cosmetics companies and breast cancer. Avon, Revlon and Estee Lauder are big sponsors of breast cancer products and some activists in both the USA and the UK argue that chemicals such as parabens and phthalates may be implicated in environmental triggers for breast cancer and that cosmetic companies’ failure to address these concerns is hypocritical.

The environmental case may well be overstated; my own view being that the causes of breast cancer can’t be reduced solely to ‘environmental hazards’. What concerns me more about the corporate razzmatazz of breast cancer month and branding of breast cancer is the way that it serves to trivialise and infantilise the experience of women. ‘It’s a girl thing’ may be an appropriate enough slogan maybe for marketing face cream or tampons but not for raising funds for breast cancer, where 46,000 women, most of them aged 50 plus, and about 300 men are diagnosed annually in the UK. In an article in Harper’s Magazine (November 2001) Barbara Ehrenreich questions both the ultra feminine theme of the breast cancer market place but also its infantilising element where teddy bears and cuddly toys are deemed appropriate gifts for women with breast cancer. As she says: ‘Certainly men diagnosed with prostate cancer do not receive gifts of Matchbox toys.’ In October silly marketing manages to portray women with breast cancer simultaneously as small children and ‘sexy ladies’ with designer disease. They are never simply women.

During October the major charities are at pains to portray a serious ‘awareness’ message through slogans such as TLC (Touch, Look, Check). Indeed I have noticed this year a subtle distancing from pink marketing on both Breast Cancer Care’s and Breakthrough Breast Cancer’s websites. Apparently breast care clinics are at their busiest in November and some women say that they don’t care about the tackiness if it just raises awareness and leads to one woman getting a suspicious lump checked out. Many women who live with breast cancer, or the relatives and friends of those who have died also enjoy the fund raising opportunities offered, wear their earrings and badges with pride and feel they are doing something for ‘the cure’. Corporate marketing of breast cancer may be distasteful but what’s wrong with someone having a good time in their living room with a pinkalicious pampering party?

The distinction is important and Breast Cancer Action, the advocacy group behind ‘think before you pink’ would answer this question by suggesting that direct giving is better than purchasing pink products. It also poses these critical questions:

How much money from your purchase actually goes towards breast cancer?

What is the maximum amount that will be donated?

How much money was spent marketing the product?

How are the funds being raised?

Where is the money going and for what types of research or support?

What is the company doing to assure its products are not contributing to the increasing incidence of breast cancer?

Cancer charities which work with less glamorous cancers, bowel, lung, pancreatic for example, let alone charities working with distinctly unfashionable diseases…mental health charities and Alzheimers… envy the ease with which consumers spend on pink products, though some cancer charities may welcome the ‘trickle down’ effect.

Breast cancer has come out of the closet, no longer a badge of shame, but it should not have become another excuse for shopping. Pink stinks.

JaneRA 09/08

Ehrenreich, B. (2001) Welcome to Cancerland. Harper’s Magazine. November 2001.

King, Samantha (2006) Pink Ribbons, Inc. Breast Cancer and the politics of Philanthropy. University of Minnesota Press.