Rochelle Eastman is seeing red from all the pink. She's all for breast cancer awareness in October. But the avalanche of pink ribbon products from dog toys to hair gel and Smith & Wesson handguns has left her thinking, "It's now over the top."
"The pink garbage cans really set me off," said Eastman, a breast cancer survivor from Savage, Minn. "If a company really wants to help, write out a check. This is now more about marketing than awareness."
Nearly 20 years after the pink ribbon became the official symbol of breast cancer awareness, unease is building over the proliferation of pink merchandise and whether the proceeds most benefit breast cancer or private business. Resistance is gaining momentum with campaigns such as "think before you pink." The blogosphere buzzes with the debate.
The organization Susan G. Komen for the Cure, which receives the lion's share of product proceeds, insists consumers are not pinked out. "We fund nearly $70 million in breast cancer research a year," said Leslie Aun, spokesperson for Komen. "All that requires funding. We would love it if everyone wrote out a check. But we want to give people as many options (for giving) as possible."
Those options are everywhere. Sit down at a restaurant and get offered a "pink drink." Head to the coffee shop and get handed a cup wrapped in a pink band. Click on the TV and check out
NFL players in pink shoes and arm bands. Visit a high school baseball game and find a fan wearing the T-shirt "Don't Let Cancer Steal Second Base."
"Breast cancer is the 800-pound gorilla of cause marketing," said David Hessekiel, president of the New York-based Cause Marketing Forum. "It's the No. 1 cause that marketers think of when they want to reach female consumers."
"There's sort of an anti-pink movement that has come together in the past few years," said Samantha King, a Canadian academic who is an international expert on the subject.
Her book, "Pink Ribbons Inc.," was made into a documentary that premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last month.
A California advocacy group called Breast Cancer Action got the ball rolling a decade ago, King said. As products proliferated, so did critics.
When KFC launched "buckets for a cure" last year, for example, nutritionists took note. Concern over the products' real charitable worth brought on philanthropy watchdogs.
No one is tracking how much money is raised by pink products or which nonprofits get the proceeds. Komen for the Cure does not know how much money it receives from the October campaign, said Aun. Some funds are donated before the campaign, she said, and some after. "There is no revenue uptick in October."
National pink campaigns focus too much on buying stuff instead of examining the possible causes of breast cancer, in particular environmental factors, said Karuna Jaggar, executive director of Breast Cancer Action.
The group launched a campaign against General Mills in 2008 after discovering Yoplait, the company's standard-bearer of the pink ribbon, contained synthetic bovine hormones. General Mills announced a year later it no longer would make the product from cows treated with the synthetic hormones.
This year, Breast Cancer Action and supporters went after Komen itself, asking it to remove a perfume it had commissioned because its research showed the perfume contained harmful chemicals. Aun said Komen has been assured that the perfume is safe.
Figuring out how much money goes to breast cancer issues, versus the product manufacturer, can be tricky. Products have different formulas for giving.
General Mills' Yoplait campaign, for example, makes it simple. It will donate 10 cents per yogurt lid, up to $2 million to Komen in 2011.
Eastman said October seems to have taken on a life of its own, way beyond its original mission. "There's a difference between breast cancer awareness month and breast cancer fundraising month," she said. "This is nuts."