Pink blitz for breast cancer stirs debate

Product proliferation brings unease over charity's direction.

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In this Monday, Oct. 10, 2011 photo, a Sephora Collection Pink Eyelash Curler is displayed in Philadelphia. Advocates are asking whether breast cancer awareness has lost its focus, and become more about marketing than women�s health. Pinkwashing, a word coined by activists, is a practice being described as when a company or organization does a pink breast cancer promotion, but at the same time sells and profits from pink-theme products. But pink ribbon groups say such sales help to fund millions of dollars of research to find cures for the disease.

Photo: Matt Rourke, Associated Press

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Rochelle Eastman is seeing red from all the pink. She's all for breast cancer awareness in October. But the avalanche of pink ribbon products -- from dog toys to hair gel to Smith & Wesson handguns -- has left her thinking, "It's now over the top."

"The pink garbage cans really set me off," said Eastman, a breast cancer survivor from Savage. "If a company really wants to help, write out a check. This is now more about marketing than awareness."

Nearly 20 years after the pink ribbon became the official symbol of breast cancer awareness, unease is building over the proliferation of pink merchandise and whether the proceeds most benefit breast cancer or private business.

Resistance is gaining momentum with campaigns like "think before you pink." The blogosphere buzzes with the debate.

The organization Susan G. Komen for the Cure, which receives the lion's share of product proceeds, insists consumers are not pinked out. "We fund nearly $70 million in breast cancer research a year," said Leslie Aun, spokesperson for Komen. "All that requires funding. We would love it if everyone wrote out a check. But we want to give people as many options [for giving] as possible."

Those options are everywhere. Sit down at a restaurant and get offered a "pink drink." Head to the coffee shop and get handed a cup wrapped in a pink band. Click on the TV and check out NFL players in pink shoes and arm bands. Visit a high school baseball game and find a fan wearing the T-shirt "Don't Let Cancer Steal Second Base."

"Breast cancer is the 800-pound gorilla of cause marketing," said David Hessekiel, president of the New York-based Cause Marketing Forum. "It's the number one cause that marketers think of when they want to reach female consumers."

And it works. A USAToday/Gallup survey last month showed that 84 percent of all Americans now "shop for the cure."

But the poll also showed nearly half of women under age 50 believe that the laser focus on breast cancer in October overshadows other important diseases.

"There's sort of an anti-pink movement that has come together in the past few years," said Samantha King, a Canadian academic who is an international expert on the subject. Her book, Pink Ribbons Inc., was made into a documentary that premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last month.

A California advocacy group called Breast Cancer Action got the ball rolling a decade ago, King said. As products proliferated, so did critics. When KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken) launched "buckets for a cure" last year, for example, nutritionists took note. Concern over the products' real charitable worth brought on philanthropy watchdogs.

"It's now coming from diverse areas," King said.

Following the money

No one is tracking how much money is raised by pink products, or which nonprofits get the proceeds.

Komen for the Cure, for example, does not know how much money it receives from the October campaign, said Aun. Some funds are donated before the campaign, she said, and some after. "There is no revenue uptick in October."

The Minnesota affiliate of Komen estimates it receives about $30,000 to $50,000 a year during the fourth quarter of the year that could be attributed to the national pink campaigns.

But those campaigns focus too much on buying stuff, instead of examining the possible causes of breast cancer -- in particular environmental factors, said Karuna Jaggar, executive director of Breast Cancer Action.

The group launched a campaign against Minnesota-based General Mills in 2008, after discovering Yoplait -- the company's standard bearer of the pink ribbon -- contained synthetic bovine hormones. General Mills announced a year later it would no longer make the product from cows treated with the synthetic hormones.

This year, Breast Cancer Action and supporters went after Komen itself, asking it to remove a perfume it had commissioned because its research showed the perfume contained harmful chemicals. Aun said Komen has been assured that the perfume is safe.

Tricky business

Figuring out how much money goes to breast cancer issues, versus the product manufacturer, can be tricky. Products have very different formulas for giving.

General Mills' Yoplait campaign, for example, makes it simple. It will donate 10 cents per yogurt lid, up to $2 million to Komen in 2011.

Minnesota-based Aveda Corp. produces a special hand lotion, donating $4 of the $21 lotion to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, up to $300,000 this year.

Dick's Sanitation, one of the three Twin Cities waste haulers behind the pink trash containers that rolled out this year, has a more complicated arrangement. It pays an extra $5 to the vendor who sells the company the pink trash containers. That vendor then sends the money to the American Cancer Society in Mendota Heights, said Debbie Nielsen, vice president of finance.

Customers, meanwhile, pay $39 for each container.

Dick's also will match customer donations of up to $12, with funds going to the Angel Foundation of Minneapolis. Mike Robinson, sales manager at Dick's Sanitation, acknowledged that he has received some negative feedback. "But this was near and dear to a lot of us here," he said.

Eastman, the breast cancer survivor, readily admits that not all pink motives and products are bad. But October seems to have taken on a life of its own, she said, way beyond its original mission.

"There's a difference between breast cancer awareness month and breast cancer fundraising month," she said. "This is nuts."

Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511

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