The Pinking of October: Are Consumers Buying It?

What began years ago as a clever, effective and shining example of cause-related marketing, Breast Cancer Awareness Month (BCAM), may be losing its luster for some consumers -- especially the women faced with pink shoes, lipstick, M&Ms and vacuum cleaners, among so many other random products. According to a MediaPost article by Tanya Irwin, breast cancer cause marketing will certainly hit in full force, as usual, this October, but she writes of some building resistance to the idea:

"Navigating the expanding sea of pink ribbon promotions requires consumers to ask a few critical questions, according to Breast Cancer Action (BCA), a grassroots education and advocacy organization of breast cancer survivors and their supporters. The San Francisco-based group will launch its 'Think Before You Pink' campaign (thinkbeforeyoupink.org) on Oct. 1. This will be the sixth year that BCA has conducted the campaign.

The group suggests that consumers question the amount of money being donated to breast cancer compared to the amount being spent on marketing, the types of programs the money supports, and what a company is doing to ensure its products are not contributing to the breast cancer epidemic, says BCA spokesperson Katrina Kahl."

After exploring Breast Cancer Awareness Month a bit online, I found out something I hadn't known about the beginnings of this case study in cause marketing: Apparently, it was launched in 1987 by the ICI/Zeneca pharmaceutical company. According to John Robbins's book, The Food Revolution (paperback published in 2001), Zeneca Pharmaceuticals, now spun-off from ICI, exclusively funds and controls the month-long "event." But, therein may lie a few conflicts (like Zeneca may just simultaneously produce chemicals that have something to do with causing cancer at the same time they produce medications that treat cancer).

Hmmm. I'll leave you to ponder that and to read up on how the pink ribbon symbol for breast cancer causes first came about, if you are so inclined.

But, let's look at the issue from the 2007 consumer angle for a second :

The fact is that women today have wised up. Just as they have gotten savvier at seeing behind the curtain of product marketing, so are they looking deeper than the pinkwash during Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Cause marketing, in general, has become so pervasive that consumers have had to develop their own guidelines for when/where/how to contribute their funds. Now in the habit of looking beyond greenwash on the environmental front, for example, a growing number of women will be looking beyond the pink this October and on into the future. They need to see if brands are walking the cancer cause talk in everything they make or do, or that their facilities emit.

Marketers are learning to serve a more demanding, discriminating consumer on all fronts. Especially in the case of cause marketing, brands need to be prepared to address - or at least begin to address - whole new levels of transparency in their corporations.

What serves the actual breast cancer issue best from the consumer's side? Buying pink vacuum cleaners or M&M's where some percentage of price or total sales goes to the cause, adding up what you can manage to contribute and writing one check to a specific fund like the Susan G. Komen organization or the Breast Cancer Prevention Fund, or compelling the corporations behind the brands to look inside before wrapping themselves in pink?