I wouldn't presume to tell a woman what a woman oughtta think,

But tell her if she's gotta think -- think pink!

Everything on the great horizon, everything you can think

and that includes the kitchen sink. Think pink!

This song from the musical "Funny Face" spoofs the fashion world's tendency to go overboard on an idea. And it gets a rousing revival in my mind each October, when the annual pink explosion hits every store shelf in sight.

This is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and girl, are we aware. Pink ribbons adorn everything from thongs to clogs to yogurt containers to NASCAR racers. Pink vacuum cleaners, lip glosses, breath mints, necklaces and blenders compete for our attention and our credit cards.

There's so much pink that we might stop noticing it altogether. Or start smelling a big pastel-coated rat. In the marketing arena, nothing is immune from the profit factor -- not even finding a cure for a terrible disease. Many corporations do donate huge sums to breast cancer research, support and public education, but just how -- or whether -- consumers actually help them do that is where things get murky.

They may care about a cure, but companies offering breast-cancer-month promotions aren't forgetting about the bottom line. Take the $25 Ann Cares cards from Ann Taylor: Ninety percent of that $25 goes to the BCRF, and card bearers get 20 percent off anything they buy at Ann Taylor stores through the end of October -- if they spend at least $100.

So if you buy a card and spend only $100, the BCRF gets $22.50, and the company still makes $60 (assuming the $2.50 left over from the card price is for handling and service costs).

Even if a donation percentage is clearly stated, you can't be sure your specific purchase will make a difference. Sometimes a company agrees in advance to a flat-rate donation, regardless of product sales. For example, two special-edition Dyson vacuums bought in October at Target will generate a respective $10 ($149 purchase price) and $40 ($399 purchase price) for the Breast Cancer Research Foundation. But wait -- if the flat amount Dyson guarantees has already been reached, your purchase won't count toward that. The verdict: Buy the pink vacuum because you need or want one, and you appreciate the fact that Dyson has donated more than $3 million over the past three years to the BCRF.

A good match: breast cancer, marketing

How did breast cancer become the poster child for cause-related sales in the first place? While it remains the second-leading cause of cancer deaths in women and the diagnosis rate has increased since the early 1990s (due to more women getting mammograms), the overall death rate has dropped steadily. Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths in women. Colorectal is third, followed by pancreatic and ovarian, yet none of the other three has anywhere near such a prominent presence on store shelves and in ads when their awareness months roll around.

Credit is due to the thousands of people nationwide who devote their careers or free time to fighting breast cancer, often fueled by a very personal passion. Almost everyone interviewed for this article had lost a family member to the disease. But there are psychological influences in play, as well.

"Women are more concerned about breast cancer than other cancers because it has more to do with their female identity," said Barbara Brenner, a breast cancer survivor and executive director of Breast Cancer Action, a San Francisco-based advocacy group. She added that even in this context, "the breast is sexy, and it sells" -- more than lungs, colons or ovaries do, at any rate.

Kevin Hail, an executive with the National Breast Cancer Foundation, said it's a short step to connect cause marketers with this target: "Women are the primary purchasers for the home, so they know they're talking to their core demographic. Most companies start by dipping a toe in the water, but when they see the success to be had in gaining consumer attention, they commit more."

As for products that simply promote awareness with a pink ribbon, that argument holds less water with each passing year, as the pink proliferation has reached saturation levels. Will seeing a pink ribbon on a shoe or a line of pink soup cans at the supermarket remind women to schedule a mammogram?

Even though fundraising is the top goal, pink products still serve as "visual cues to safeguard health," said Caroline Wall of Susan G. Komen for the Cure. "If women decide they need to know more about reducing risk, then the products have served a great purpose."

Others see the awareness angle as at least a partial cop-out.

"If you're not aware of breast cancer by now, you've been living under a rock," said Brenner. "The problem is, people see a pink ribbon on something and automatically think if they buy it, they're personally contributing to the cause."

And often they are. Some pink-product promoters truly are more charitable than others. Cause-related marketing raised $58 million for Komen for the Cure last year -- 11 percent of total revenue. General Mills' "Save Lids to Save Lives" Yoplait yogurt program has raised more than $19 million over the past 10 years. The program donates 10 cents to Komen for every lid mailed back by the end of the year, with a guaranteed donation of $500,000 and a cap of $1.5 million. Yet even such a popular, seemingly straightforward effort as this one has been challenged, and it's a great example of how complicated corporate philanthropy can get.

Hormone headache

On her group's website, breastcanceraction.org, activist Brenner charges General Mills with "pinkwashing," or using a product that she says may be dangerous to women's health. Yoplait is made with dairy products from cows treated with bovine growth hormone (rBGH), which has been linked to several health concerns for humans, including breast cancer. Wal-Mart has stopped selling milk from rBGH-treated cows -- but not Yoplait yogurt. General Mills spokesman Tom Forsythe said that it's not possible to test for rBGH.
"The economic incentive for farmers to go rBGH-free is increasing, because cows don't last as long," Forsythe said. "Do we want to buy this? No. Is it a headache? Yes. But if there was a safety issue, the scientists would say so."

As to rBGH's link to breast cancer, studies are inconclusive and "there seems to be more heat than light" around the issue, said Dr. Yashar Hirshaut, co-author of "Breast Cancer: The Complete Guide."

It's not exactly a party

The most annoying pink promotions of all have an inappropriately festive tone, like a recent e-mail I received promising the "hottest pink party EVER! Show your support! Wear pink!" People who are losing breasts and lives to this disease aren't in a party mood, and wearing pink doesn't show support for anything but a color.

The safest way to make sure your money hits its target is to send it directly to the charity of your choice. If you feel like thinking pink, go for it -- just don't skip the "thinking" part.

Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046