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Breast Cancer Cause Marketing: Are PR and Marketing Pros Rethinking Their Addiction to Pink?

Breast Cancer Cause Marketing: Are PR and Marketing Pros Rethinking Their Addiction to Pink?

Picture of Barbara Feder Ostrov

As we exit Breast Cancer Awareness Month, with its ubiquitous marketing campaigns gussied up in pink ribbons, I've been wondering if public relations and marketing folks have been more cautious about using breast cancer "cause marketing" to promote everything from guns to football to fake butter to pornography

We're more aware of "pinkwashing," the practice of using breast cancer awareness messages to promote consumer goods, than ever before. Google mentions of the term in the past two years to numbered 41,700, compared to 27,200 in the entire decade before that.

But has that awareness – and the harsh criticism that often accompanies it - led to any changes in marketers' campaigns?

It should – but probably hasn't, according to several PR pros I talked to this month. Said Jerry Swerling, veteran public relations executive and director of public relations studies at the USC-Annenberg School for Communications & Journalism:

You need to distinguish between what marketing people might think and do and what PR people might think and do. A lot of the folks I know, if they were in a meeting with marketing professionals, would ask, 'is this an authentic thing we're doing and will it stand up to scrutiny? What you're talking about doing isn't terribly impressive or authentic – it would be easy to shoot holes in this.' In a sophisticated organization, there would be this kind of dialogue.

Well, that sounds ideal. But is that dialogue really happening? Swerling was skeptical, noting the many companies that still participate in October's breast cancer awareness campaigns.

Ogilvy CommonHealth executive John Nosta, who writes the Health Critical blog at, describes pinkwashing, or rather criticisms of it, as "a necessary evil" that comes along with authentic breast cancer awareness campaigns that are more than mere marketing ploys.

"An authentic cause, given the volume of social media outlets, can have a self-purifying effect because odd claims, claims that are false, are scrubbed by the national frequency, scrutiny and observation of so many readers," Nosta said. "If you're not getting criticism, maybe your voice isn't loud enough."

Still, Nosta echoed Swerling's sense that public relations folks and marketers may be starting to feel that pink is played out. "The pink ribbon has been very successful. It's reached a high level of awareness. Now people are complaining that there's nothing left to do in that color. 'What can I do now that the market is saturated?'''

So what's the next frontier in cause marketing? This month, it's "Movember," a global movement that appears to involve growing a mustache to raise awareness for men's health.

And just like pink ribbon merchandise, Movember has its own product catalog, too.

Related Posts:

Pinkwashing: Is Breast Cancer "The Bully of All Diseases"?

Contrarian Coverage of Breast Cancer Awareness Month

Breast Cancer Backstory: Komen's Decision to Cut Planned Parenthood Funding

Photo credit: two gypsy hearts via Flickr


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As long as PR and marketing folks only talk amongst themselves about how to "market" cancer they will continue to make mistakes. The "pinkwashing" issue is several years old, the only difference now is that more healthy people who are not part of the cancer community have caught on. The use of the pink ribbon as a symbol for all cancers, and in ways that exclude all other cancers, signals to the patient community that the company/hospital/organization choosing to market this way is one to avoid. It is mind-boggling when large hospital systems spend literally millions of dollar to market cancer facilities, and run ads claiming to treat all cancers, and then communicate an entirely different message by actions that are entirely pink and offend those who actually use their services and influence the referral process, The same occurs in support organizations when well-meaning but ignorant staffers stock the shelves full of "pink" materials while shoving everyone else's cancer support materials in the back of the room. The news media is just as guilty - just do a search and compare the results for the volume of stories run about breast cancer in October against those for any other cancer in their designated month. The obsession with one cancer and exclusion of others harms the public in many other ways and this article is a starting point for a deeper conversation that needs to take place.


The Center for Health Journalism’s 2023 National Fellowship will provide $2,000 to $10,000 reporting grants, five months of mentoring from a veteran journalist, and a week of intensive training at USC Annenberg in Los Angeles from July 16-20. Click here for more information and the application form, due May 5.


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