It’s Pink Month Again

Readers may recall that last year I did a series on the problems with breast cancer campaigning, which I don’t really feel the need to repeat; you can poke through my archives if you’re inclined to do so. But, I couldn’t let this year pass without mentioning the issue, and abby jean pointed me at a piece highlighting the problems with the way people talk about breast cancer from a new angle: these campaigns don’t even appear to work for women.

After spending a month last year talking about how ‘awareness’ excludes many people who get breast cancer and is often framed in alienating ways, and after getting a lot of hate mail informing me that I was slagging on breast cancer research and awareness, I was astounded and dismayed to find out that these campaigns, which people often claim are necessary for the cause even if ‘some people’ don’t like them, are actually not effective. People vigorously defend pinkification even after having issues highlighted, like, for example, the pinkwashing of goods linked to an increased risk of cancer. They say that it’s attention grabbing and that makes it acceptable. Yet, the very attention it’s intended to grab? Isn’t there:

Stefano Puntoni and his colleagues found that when women were exposed to gender cues, like the color pink, they were less likely than women who had not been primed with a gender cue to think that they might someday get breast cancer and to say that they’d be willing to donate to the cause. Pink, in other words, decreased both their willingness to fund research and the seriousness with which women took the disease.

In other words, pinkification, the branding of breast cancer as pink to raise awareness about the issue, is actually having a paradoxical effect on the very population it is supposed to reach. Women exposed to pink cause marketing are less likely to think they will be affected by breast cancer, and may not take preventative steps or seek out early diagnosis and treatment. Which leaves me wondering who, exactly, this cause marketing is supposed to reach; it’s not aimed at men and nonbinary people who could get breast cancer. It’s not reaching women who find the gendering off-putting and tune out when everything turns pink for October. And apparently it’s not aimed at women in general, since women aren’t responding to it.

This research is a compelling argument for reframing the way people talk about breast cancer, because breast cancer is still a killer, and yes, it’s a killer that gets less attention than some specifically because it’s associated with women and is considered ‘a woman’s problem.’ Campaigners who don’t believe or refuse to listen to arguments about how pinkification excludes and alienates people outside their ‘target audience’ should reconsider who their target evidence is, in light of these findings—for those who genuinely believe that breast cancer is primarily of concern to women, and who want to focus their efforts on women, wouldn’t it make sense to ensure that those efforts actually reach women?

At this point, though, it may be a difficult juggernaut to stop. The branding of breast cancer and the manipulative uses of cause marketing have created a situation where many companies now recognise that breast cancer is big business, and they want to take advantage of that. I was appalled recently to see a hot pink street sweeping machine go by; first I was goggling that we actually had a street sweeping machine in Fort Bragg, and then I was agog all over again at the fact that it was aggressively hot pink with breast cancer branding all over it. Because nothing says ‘awareness and access to mammograms’ like a giant pink street sweeper, you know?

Pink branding is, of course, everywhere in October, to the point that I feel like I need polarised lenses to navigate the grocery store, but it’s spilled over into all the other months of the year. It’s become a year-round affair of consumerism and lust for profits. Companies know that slapping a pink ribbon onto something will encourage consumers to buy it, and thus, they’re very supportive of the ongoing campaign to associate breast cancer with pink. A sudden change on the part of organisations working to promote breast cancer awareness, a decision to turn to a more neutral representation of the disease, would likely be met with hostility.

Can these organisations get away from pink? Obviously, one study isn’t going to convince them, and rightly so. More research is necessary to verify the phenomenon and to explore the reasons behind it. Those findings may confirm that pinkification is actually bad for breast cancer awareness, is counterproductive, and they could show how organisations could reframe the discussion to make it more accessible to women, and other target audiences. What I wonder is how long it will take for that change to come about.

How many studies will it take? How much research is required to find out how to get out from under the pink yoke? How many more people need to die while the debate about pinkification rages? And, moving forward, how are we going to create a functional, effective campaign to educate people about breast cancer in a way that is actually constructive and useful? Most people are aware of breast cancer, but may not know what to do from there; how to find out when and if they need screening, which steps they can take to reduce their risks, how they can contribute to research. This information needs to disseminated in a clean, clear campaign that reaches everyone.