Used to be a time when October would roll around and I’d start mumbling about the over-the-top Halloween marketing, too commercialized, all that candy isn’t good for the kids, yada yada. But over the last few years, the Halloween shelf share has dropped, replaced by a spreading ooze of Pepto-pink merchandise whose purchase we are assured will bring us just that much closer to “The Cure.”
Breast cancer has the dubious distinction of becoming the marketing darling of diseases — there is no other disease for which we are told that going shopping can cure an illness. Never mind that many of the pink-washed products are downright unhealthy and, in some cases, contain ingredients that have been linked to cancer. They make the companies that sell them look like concerned corporate citizens even though the profits they make selling all this stuff often far exceed what they donate to fight breast cancer. But it’s all about awareness, right?
Well, maybe not. A new study commissioned by the National Breast Cancer Coalition found that we are already quite aware of breast cancer, and that “these popular efforts lull the public into a false sense that adequate progress is being made.” Indeed, unless you’ve been in a coma for the last 20 years, it would be extremely difficult not to be aware of breast cancer.
So why aren’t we buying red stuff for heart disease and black for lung cancer, both of which kill more women every year than breast cancer? The answer in large part is that breasts are sexy. And let’s face it, sex sells. Lest you doubt that, this year Ralph Lauren is marketing polo shirts with a bull’s-eye above one breast to symbolize targeting (bull’s-eye, target, get it?) breast cancer. An ad running on the Web and in magazines shows a group of very young, beautiful women wearing only the polo shirts and string bikinis, leaving one to wonder just what is really being marketed.
But perhaps most disturbing are the pinkified products that contain harmful ingredients, including numerous cosmetics that contain parabens, an ingredient long linked to cancer. One also has to question the pink M&M’s, Tic Tacs, etc., given that one of the most important things you can do to prevent breast cancer is to eat healthy food and watch your weight. And then there are the automobile companies that proudly support breast cancer awareness while making little effort to curb cancer-causing auto emissions. Here in Kentucky, we even have the oxymoronic pink license plates that say “Drive for the Cure.” For more on the inappropriate use of cause marketing to raise money for breast cancer, check out www.thinkpink.org.
Breast cancer survivor Susan Metters summed up the situation very well in her blog, Lemon Margaritas: “I am glad that all these companies want to raise awareness and are donating money to the cause, but at the same time it’s frustrating because they are clearly capitalizing on this crazy, ribbon-plastered, pink breast cancer machine. It’s sad when something like breast cancer has become so commercialized. Is the cause getting lost in the craze?”
Metters suggests we move beyond the crass commercialization of this disease and “put some power in the pink.” One excellent idea would be to start paying more attention to the cause of breast cancer. As we learned this year, Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) is the likely cause of many cases of breast cancer in the last few decades, and new research indicates that pesticides such as DDT are also likely culprits. And aren’t we more likely to find a cure if we know the cause? You can learn more about the politics of breast cancer awareness at www.bcaction.org.
A final note — October is also Domestic Violence Awareness Month. But violence behind closed doors is still a much more taboo subject than breast cancer, even though it is a horrendous problem that impacts the lives of millions of women and caused the death of more than 1,800 women in this country alone in 2005. So I issue this challenge: For every dollar you donate to breast cancer awareness, send the same amount to the Center for Women and Families to help the victims of domestic violence.
And now I’m off to buy a few bags of candy corn.
Lucinda Marshall is a feminist artist, writer and activist. She is the founder of the Feminist Peace Network, www.feministpeacenetwork.org. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org