Capitalizing on Cancer

There are a few things that motivate me enough to climb on top of my writer's soapbox and speak out about what I feel is an injustice to society.

One of those things hit my mailbox last week.

A well-known catalog selling all types of products from sunglasses, beads, bracelets, pens and more arrived with a very pink cover displaying a "HOPE" theme throughout the inside pages; the entire catalog designed to sell gear for those planning an event for a cause. The first 20 pages sold pink items. The remaining pages sold gear in a variety of colors -- many of the items containing a colored ribbon. The table of contents gave a guide for which color went with each cause.

I'll admit that the pink cover and first 20 pages is what ruffled my colon cancer-surviving feathers. If you've ever survived a cancer other than breast cancer, October's Breast Cancer Awareness Month that comes covered in pink can feel like a punch in the gut.

Don't get me wrong, the awareness is amazing and it's critically important. Props to breast cancer warriors who've helped breast cancer awareness become mainstream -- I'm certain it's saved many, many lives. I have several friends and family members who've survived breast cancer so I'm not down on the cause.

But as one of the 14 million cancer survivors who happened to survive something other than breast cancer, I'll say it's tough when October rolls around. There is a month associated with just about every cancer these days, but nothing gets the same level of attention as breast cancer.

I can't help but wonder if that's because breast cancer affects women. And women shop. And in the case of this catalog -- women plan events.

Although my initial response to the catalog was frustration at the pink explosion, I tried to see the good in it. Celebrating breast cancer survivors is something I support. For once other cancer types and diseases were included. There were several quotes by those touched by cancer or other causes indirectly showing how people used the products at events hosted by nonprofits. But as I thumbed through the catalog, my enthusiasm and gratitude became short-lived.

Obviously -- colorectal cancer is my soft spot. The table of contents made sure people knew the color blue indicated support for "colon" and "colorectal" cancer, as if they were two different cancer types. They must not have realized that together colon and rectal cancers make up colorectal cancer. And then I noticed that none of the products included the Blue Star -- the national symbol designating colorectal cancer awareness.

I kept turning to see the same generic products featured in pink with blue ribbons, red ribbons, teal ribbons, yellow ribbons and more throughout the 68-page mailer. After the ribbon pages came the generic mustache-themed party gear for a "no-shave November" event - which failed to mention the outstanding nonprofit Movember that created the facial hair movement to specifically raise awareness of men's health across the globe.

Anger, frustration and sadness flooded in all at the same time as I thumbed through page after page. Obviously I would have loved for my group, Fight Colorectal Cancer, to provide insight into colon cancer awareness. But, we were one of the many causes without mention of any way to truly give back and get involved in raising awareness.

This certainly isn't the first time that brands have tried to sell products by slapping a ribbon on them; but this catalog took it to a new level and became the epitome of capitalizing on cancer for me.

I work in communications and have a marketing background so I'm certainly not dogging on those who use life events to reach people. I'll even give props to the catalog creators who knew a mid-August drop would be perfect timing for those planning an October breast cancer awareness party. The quotes throughout and subtle descriptions encouraging shoppers to have a party and donate money try to show that the catalog is all about supporting a cause. But there's one missing fact:

How is THIS catalog supporting the cause?

A quote from the CEO on the inside cover states that the company cares, and that it supports national and community partners that enhance the lives of children, youth and families. However nothing goes outside of that generic statement. There's not a list of resources. Every page and "color cause" isn't associated with a nonprofit. And there's certainly no specific call-out about how the profits generated from THIS "awareness party" catalog will support what these products supposedly promote.

It's disappointing to see this type of capitalism on cancer occur, and I know it will only continue if customers don't see through the surface-level of pretty pictures and colorful displays of ribbons. We should demand to see how the profits from sales of these materials actually go toward raising awareness. I'll even go as far as hoping it's a significant percentage since technically products like these compete with nonprofits across the country who sell similar gear in online stores, yet send 100% of the proceeds to support awareness efforts.

If companies really want to raise awareness and support survivors, they need to invest in the cause. Until brands disclose exactly where the money goes, it will appear as though they're more concerned with boosting sales than raising awareness to save lives.