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How Pinkwashing is Hijacking Breast Cancer Awareness

Here's how "pinkwashing" is hijacking your good intentions—and money—when it comes to breast cancer awareness.

If you've stepped into any grocery or superstore lately, you likely noticed an onslaught of "pinkwashed" products. Pink packaging. Pink-themed products. Pink ribbons. You get the drift.

You probably thought this was pretty benign at first. Who could argue with spreading breast cancer awareness? Isn't it nice to see a bit of corporate responsibility?

Then you see something like Mike's Hard Pink Lemonade, and you start to question what's going on here.

Mike's may as well have printed an image of Fonzie from Happy Days on water skis on its six-packs. Pink water skis, of course. Because this is a prime example of how breast cancer awareness has "jumped the shark."

For those unfamiliar with the term, it's "when a brand, design, or creative effort moves beyond the essential qualities that initially defined its success, beyond relevance or recovery" and was christened by an episode of Happy Days, according to Wikipedia.  

As much as I dislike sourcing Wikipedia, this is a spot-on definition for the state of breast cancer awareness in many respects. It's being fueled by the abundance of all those pinkwashed products you're seeing.

What's So Bad About Breast Cancer Awareness?

Before you say I'm being too cynical, let me clarify. I have no problem with companies giving money to charity. Whether it's a portion of sales or a lump sum, I can't argue with these donations. If the company gains a little PR bump or extra sales, so be it. For-profit companies aren't charities. I get it. That isn't why breast cancer awareness jumped the shark.

No, it's when companies pinkwash their products to make them more attractive to consumers, but obscure or manipulate the way purchases actually benefit charities. It's wrong. It's misleading. It's hijacking consumers' good intentions.

Here's how they do it.

Exhibit A: Mike's Hard Pink Lemonade

At a glance, a reasonable person might think a portion of the purchase of Mike's Hard Pink Lemonade benefits a breast cancer charity. If that's the case, Mike's isn't being clear about it.

The six-pack packaging states that Mike's, "will be making a contribution to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation." It doesn't say if that means a portion of the purchase or a lump sum. The website Mike's set up for this product doesn't make it clear, either. Go ahead, try to find specifics here.

But hey, the drink is pink. Your purchase must be doing some good, right? It's not like a company would make a single donation to charity to justify pinkwashing their products in the hopes consumers bought them over non-pinkwashed competitors?

Although I can't demonstrate this is happening with Mike's, it's not out of the question. Here's an example.

Exhibit B: Prima Pasta Butternut Squash Ravioli

There used to be a pink package of Prima Pasta Butternut Squash Ravioli in my freezer. Then I ate it. That was a good lunch.

Not as tasty is the fine print on the pink packaging. It reads, "Pasta Prima is donating $20,000, regardless of purchase, to The Breast Cancer Research Foundation."

Zero percent of my purchase went to charity. It didn't matter if I'd bought one or 100 packages. Pasta Prima would still donate $20,000. Dansko, a shoe company, pulled a similar stunt in 2010, according to ThinkBeforeYouPink.org.

So why wash the ravioli package in pink? Is it because, like Mike's, the color stands out on the shelf? That it tempts consumers' sense of philanthropy? I suspect this is the case.

At least squash ravioli is somewhat healthy, unlike...

Exhibit C: Velveeta Cheesy Skillets Ultimate Cheeseburger Mac

Take a moment to scroll to the photo gallery attached to this article. You won't believe me. That's right, now you can eat Velveeta Cheesy Skillets Ultimate Cheeseburger Mac "for the cure."

Starting to get the picture? Feeling a little cynical?

Let's put aside for a minute that this product isn't a ringing endorsement for healthy living. The back of the package states, "Kraft Velveeta Cheesy Skillets is supporting the National Breast Cancer Foundation, Inc. in its mission to save lives through early detection." It also lists information about early detection.

The detection information is worthy. I'll give them that. But how much is Kraft donating through its support? Would my purchase benefit this charity?

It's not clear, and that's suspicious. I can't find information anywhere online about how much is being donated. Feel free to post a link in the comments if you do.

That pink ribbon on the front could win the tie between two similar "meal helpers." Shoppers' charitable instincts are being manipulated to drive sales. This is a marketing trick.

Back to the nutrition thing. The bizarre phenomenon of breast cancer charities partnering with not-so-healthy food businesses is nothing new. In 2010, KFC partnered with the Susan G. Komen for the Cure. They launched the Buckets for the Cure program. KFC donated 50 cents from the sale of each pink bucket of chicken, for a total of $4,249,539.

Although that money may have been spent on research, let's not kid ourselves. It's absurd for a fast food chain to partner with a health-related charity. That's like having a cigarette company partner with oxygen tank manufacturers to fund throat cancer research.

So why go through with it? Why risk leaving a bad taste (no pun intended) in consumers' mouths?

I think you know why.

At least it's possible to follow the money with the Buckets for the Cure debacle. Unlike...

Exhibit D: Panera Bread's Pink Ribbon Bagel

For Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Panera Bread rolled out the Pink Ribbon Bagel. It's pretty tasty, according to Panera's website and to me.

Panera's website also states here that "a portion of proceeds go to benefit breast cancer charities" and to "see your neighborhood bakery-cafe for details about donation amount and the breast cancer charity."

I went to my local Panera to get more information. A flyer there states that a portion of Pink Ribbon Bagel proceeds will benefit Susan G. Komen for the Cure Minnesota.

Since neither the flyer or the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Minnesota website states how much, I asked the folks at my local Panera about the donation amount per purchase.

One person said 10 cents, but wasn't sure. Another person backed this up. About not being sure.

Seem a little strange to you? Panera went through all this trouble to come up with a great-tasting bagel, some promotional material and a page on its corporate website. But for some reason it forgets to mention exactly how much is being donated.

Again, it's consumers' well-meaning purchasing power that is being focused upon, not donating to charity. Because if it was, there'd be no problem finding clear donation information.

Exhibit E: Me

Why should I care so much about these things? Am I gaining anything? Or am I just another Internet troll?

In 2010, someone saved my life by donating her kidney to me. Not a day goes by that I don't realize how lucky I am.

I know what it feels like to be diagnosed with a life-threatening disease. How breaking the news to family and friends is even worse than the phone call from my doctor. I know how challenging it is to maintain hope before things get better.

I bet breast cancer patients can relate.

I put time and energy into raising funds for charities important to me. I know what's at stake. There are lives on the line. I can't stand to see the way pinkwashing has hijacked the good intentions of the breast cancer movement.

Let's be educated consumers. Make sure our hard-earned money is getting to the right people: Cancer patients and their families. Everything else is just noise.

What You Can Do

Here's my litmus test for navigating the pinkwashed tides at the grocery and superstores.

1) Is it clear how much of a purchase goes toward charity?

2) How much of that donation is spent on tangible things like research? Remember, awareness is a means, not an end.

If you can answer those questions, you'll be in a better position to make an educated purchase.

Like I said, there's nothing wrong with companies partnering with charities. They just need to do it responsibly and transparently.

The best way to send that message is with our dollars. Let's use our purchasing power to show how fed up we are with disingenuous pinkwashing.

Either that or we'll come up with a special kind of pink-themed toliet paper to wipe this mess up. Because it's not like things have gotten so ridiculous that some company beat us to the punch already. Right?

Oh, wait.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Daisy Chene November 01, 2012 at 12:39 PM
@pat - is this really true? Atkins has always seemed to be such a nice guy.
Pat November 01, 2012 at 01:04 PM
Yes, Daisy. I am afraid it is. My friend, who gives a lot of money to people in politics, was just telling me the other night about the email he got from Rep. Atkins (he was surprised that Rep. Atkins needed more money). I have no reason to doubt him about this. Kind of makes you rethink what the public persona has been, and who the real politician is. Sorry to have highjacked this important thread with local politics, Benjamin.
Benjamin Sobieck November 01, 2012 at 01:18 PM
No problem, talk about whatever you'd like!
The Twilight Clone November 01, 2012 at 01:51 PM
I think the Mike's Hard Lemonade ribbon is especially ironic considering that alcohol is a risk factor for breast cancer.
Benjamin Sobieck November 08, 2012 at 03:59 PM
I was in touch with Mike's Hard Lemonade. Here's a new post: http://lakeminnetonka.patch.com/blog_posts/how-a-fictional-detective-made-a-real-world-impact

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