Pinkwashing (breast cancer)

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Picture of a Pink ribbon

Pinkwashing is a form of cause marketing that uses a range of pink ribbon logos, displayed on various products. The Pink ribbon logo symbolizes support for breast cancer-related charities or foundations.[1]

The term 'pinkwashing' is associated with companies that use the pink ribbon symbol or use the support of breast cancer charities as a marketing technique, to promote one of their products, while at the same time manufactured products have proven to contain ingredients, that are linked to the disease developed or are used in a manner that associates it with the increased risk of disease.


The term pinkwashing is compound word modelled on the term whitewashing, and was first coined by Breast Cancer Action (BCA). On, a project of BCA, 'pinkwasher' is defined as, "a company or organisation that claims to care about breast cancer by promoting a pink ribbon product, but at the same time, produces, manufactures and/or sells products that are linked to the disease."

Origin of the 'Pink ribbon'[edit]

The 'pink ribbon' first originated from a woman named Charlotte Hayley in 1992.[2] Charlotte hand made and dispensed peach colored ribbons with informational cards that read " The National Cancer Institute annual budget is $1.8 billion, only 5% goes for cancer prevention. Help us wake up our legislators and Americans by wearing this ribbon".

Self magazine in conjunction with Estee Lauder were working on a NBCAM matter that same year and proposed Hayley with an opportunity to contribute in the issue in a trade for the rights to use the peach coloured ribbon. Hayley declined the offer, having no desire to work with big companies. Following declining the offer, Self magazine and Estee Lauder changed the ribbons color to pink (to avoid legal difficulties over rights) and then used the ribbon as their emblem. Estee Lauder distributed the ribbons to woman at the cosmetic counters included with instructions on small cards how to conduct a correct self-examination for breast cancer.

'Pink ribbon' products draw critical examination[edit]

As the largest Organization monetizing breast cancer, Susan G. Komen Foundation and its licensing of a proprietary trademark is running the "pink ribbon" logo, and slogan on a wide range of products and has drawn close scrutiny over 'pinkwashing' products.


One of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month's (NBCAM) largest supporters is the Astra Zeneca Health Care Foundation. "Since the Foundation began, it has supported NBCAM's goals of public awareness, public education, knowledge sharing, and greater access to services in the fight against breast cancer".[3] However, some scholars question the true intentions of Astra Zeneca; in P. C. Pezzullos' article, "Resisting National Breast Cancer Awareness Month: The Rhetoric of Counter public and their Cultural Performances".[4] the Toxic Links Coalition (TLC) disapproves of Astra Zeneca being NBCAM's initial supporter for two reasons: Firstly, Astra Zeneca is the manufacturer of the world's best selling cancer drug (a minority of activists believe this drug produces 'toxins' causing breast cancer- this is unproven, and considered false by the medical community); secondly, Astra Zeneca has profited from the promotion of mammograms (these same activists argue mammograms might be causing breast cancer- there is no evidence for this either).[citation needed] For this reason, "TLC emphasizes the importance of stopping the production of carcinogenic toxic chemicals" (Pezzullo, p. 353). Komen promotions which have drawn criticism include Houston-based fracking equipment and vendor Baker Hughes, who sponsored $100,000 for a campaign with the tagline, "Doing their bit for a cure".[5] Opponents insist that hydraulic fracturing extracts oil and gas, using a mixture of water and chemicals, including known or possible carcinogens.[6] Similar concerns have been raised about automobile manufacturers as sponsors,[7] as vehicle exhaust contains carcinogens.[8]

Komens' own "Promise Me" perfume has also drawn Breast Cancer Action, as the label fails to disclose that the product contains galaxolide and toluene.[9]

The "pinkwashing" issue is not limited to Komen and its sponsors. In 2007, the Estée Lauder Pink Ribbon Collection series used a donation to The Breast Cancer Research Foundation (BCRF) to promote products containing parabens, chemicals linked to breast cancer. In 2012, the Food and Drug Administration had connected 5-Hour Energy drinks, a caffeinated energy shot promoted using a Living Beyond Breast Cancer (LBBC) sponsorship as cause marketing, to thirteen deaths and serious injuries, including heart attacks.[10]

In 2008, Think Before You Pink launched an online campaign against Yoplait, the national sponsor of Susan G. Komen's annual walk. Their pink-lidded yogurt was sold to raise money for breast cancer but was made from dairy containing the hormone rBGH or rBST (recombinant bovine growth hormone or recombinant bovine somatotrophin). With enough pressure from the public, General Mills (the manufacture of Yoplait) pledged to go rBGH free.[11]

In 2010, Komen partnered with Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) briefly on a "Buckets for a Cure" campaign. In response, Breast Cancer Action launched the "What's the Cluck?" campaign,[1] arguing that, although Komen's intentions may have been to promote KFC's new grilled chicken and vegetable meals, the same pink buckets held fried chicken, which can be attributed to high-fat diets linked to cancer risk and diseases. Komen contested and saw the marketing as effective because they were able to reach women who were not brought in by other advertisements in their neighbourhoods, like the billboards or the spokesperson at their church.[12] According to Komen, KFC's pink buckets of chicken helped raise $4 million, and "money from partnerships such as this allowed Komen to provide screening mammograms to 600,000 women last year".[13]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Think Before You Pink » What the Cluck?!".
  2. ^ Robinson, Rebecca Elizabeth (May 2016). "Reproducing Neoliberal Breast Cancer Awareness: A Discourse Analysis of Pinkwashing Campaigns" (PDF). (Thesis).
  3. ^ "National Breast Cancer Awareness Month".
  4. ^ Pezzullo, Phaedra C. (2003). "Resisting "National Breast Cancer Awareness Month": The Rhetoric of Counterpublics and their Cultural Performances" (PDF). Quarterly Journal of Speech. 89 (4): 345–365. doi:10.1080/0033563032000160981.
  5. ^ "Women's health advocates denounce Komen Foundation's partnership with Baker Hughes". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
  6. ^ "Komen is supposed to be curing breast cancer. So why is its pink ribbon on so many carcinogenic products?". Washington Post.
  7. ^ ABC News. "Pink Washing Is Real and It Hurts [Commentary]". ABC News.
  8. ^ Hobson, Katherine (7 December 2011). "IOM Report Has Familiar List of Known Breast Cancer Risks". WSJ.
  9. ^ "Raise a Stink!".
  10. ^ "Breast Cancer Awareness Month Brings the Usual 'Pinkwashing' and Unethical Cause-Marketing Partnerships". The Huffington Post. 22 October 2014.
  11. ^ "Think Before You Pink » Yoplait: Put A Lid On It". Retrieved 2015-12-09.
  12. ^ Westervelt, Amy. "The Pinkwashing Debate: Empty Criticism or Serious Liability?".
  13. ^ Komen's pink ribbons raise lots of green, many questions; Survivors, groups ask world's largest charity fighting breast cancer to be more sensitive USA TODAY July 18, 2011 Monday

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